IT WAS a pathetic sight - the great hulk of a magnificent black bear reduced to a trussed, whimpering specimen suspended in a bamboo prison. An animal which should have been roaming the mountains and forests of northern China was forced to lie on its stomach with a paw extended as far out as the captive bars would allow. The gesture was a futile attempt for affection and freedom. The pitiful creature could not move the rest of its body let alone turn round. It had been kept in this condition for years. This is one of China's many bear farms. Not only is it legal but the owner has won an award for ''technological progress''. Unless something is done to change the Chinese Government's regulation of bear farms, these proud animals will spend at least a decade in this pitiful state. Plastic tubing protruding from a patch of furless skin on the animal's back told why the bear was in this state. This was a bear being kept alive merely for the extraction of its precious bile. The sleepy little village of Weidong near Weizhou, in Guangdong province, is flanked by signs of China's economic development - newly-completed factories sit uncomfortably next to rundown houses. Inside the village, housed in four primitive huts, is a business which has profited from a strange concept of technological progress which sees fully grown black bears restricted in tiny bamboo cages, so they can be milked for their 13 productive years. The Weizhou bear farm, visited by the Sunday Morning Post and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) last week, has been in operation for 10 years and is licensed by Chinese authorities. The conditions were appalling. Asiatic black bears - an internationally recognised endangered species, protected under Chinese law - were kept in brick huts with no sunlight and a couple of fans for ventilation. The cages were smaller than the bears, who were squashed into a reclining position on their stomachs,their paws sticking out through the bamboo bars. Although they appeared to be physically healthy they wore blank expressions, some of these naturally playful and curious animals made clucking noises when people approached - a sign of affection. One was silently swaying to and fro despite its confines, the repetitive actions indicative of boredom, stress and eventual madness. The hind quarters of the bears were further restricted by a bamboo bar inside the cage to prevent it from ripping out the plastic tube with which bile is extracted. When the Sunday Morning Post arrived at the farm, the bears were being fed with a mixture of cod liver oil and milk powder. Their only function is to lie in the cage, eat, and be milked for bile - they are never allowed out. The farm's manager, Mr Lee Wai-hung, does not see what all the fuss is about. ''The bears are protected animals under national law, we are not killing them,'' he said. ''What we are doing is legal, if somebody thinks that's cruel I accept their opinion, they are entitled to it.'' Ms Jill Robinson, IFAW's Asian representative, who had previously visited an unlicensed bear farm in Zhuhai, was distressed by the situation. ''The conditions here are even worse than those at Zhuhai,'' she said. ''Yet we were told that Zhuhai did not have a licence because the conditions were too bad - I am confused by the contradiction in the Chinese Government's statement.'' The IFAW has launched an appeal to the Chinese authorities to close the bear farms. There are 40 such farms across China, housing around 8,000 animals, but the government plans to farm 40,000 captive bears, Ms Robinson said. There are presently nine bears producing 30 millilitres of bear bile daily at the Weizhou farm. Another four were recently bought from Dongbei, in the north of China, in anticipation of the expanding trade. ''At the moment we just cater for customers from Guangdong who visit our farm to buy powdered bear bile but we want to distribute bear bile wine on a nationwide basis,'' Mr Lee said. These customers believe the bear bile has medicinal properties which can cure a wide range of ailments, including kidney infection, high blood pressure, heart disease and haemorrhoids. But according to Dr John Wedderburn, there is no evidence bear bile is any more effective for the treatment of these conditions than a placebo. ''Younger Chinese physicians have stopped using animal parts in medicines, and are relying more on herbal remedies,'' Dr Wedderburn said. ''It is the older and more traditional physicians and their patients who are using them. ''Unfortunately, they are also using them at such a rate that many endangered animals will soon be extinct.'' Dr Wedderburn said Canadian scientists had already managed to synthesise the chemical in bear bile that is believed to be effective. Although the usefulness of cures are judged differently in Western and Oriental practice, Dr Wedderburn said that ''to cause so much suffering, we would need far more proof that bear bile really works''. It is not clear whether trade in bear bile is legal in Hongkong. The current law forbids possession of black bears, their parts, or any products made from their parts without a licence. Agriculture and Fisheries Department spokeswoman Pauline Ling said although the legislation outlawed the trade in bear gall bladders, it did not specifically cover bear bile. However, the legislation is under review and there will be a clear provision covering bear bile in the future, she said. Bear bile fetches high prices. ''It is more precious than snake bile, more precious than gold,'' Mr Lee said. The farm charges 30 yuan (about HK$40) per gram or 1,000 yuan for a phial of powdered bile which is dissolved in water or wine. Although many customers were local, Mr Lee said he had clients from Hongkong and Taiwan. ''They consist of businessmen who have joint-venture projects or factories in this area - they tend to be regulars,'' he said. The Taiwanese were particularly keen on bear bile and usually spent around $10,000 a time, he said. ''Sometimes they bring their families along for a visit and they take snapshots and make home videos of the bears.'' The new bears have been at the farm for four months and are awaiting an operation to insert a plastic tube into their gall bladders. It costs between $20,000 and $30,000 to buy a bear and arrange for transportation, depending on its weight. When the new bears arrived at the farm they were starved for a day before they were lured into their cages with a piece of chicken. ''They are very heavy and weigh between 100 and 200 kilograms, so unless we did that, it would be hard to move them,'' Mr Lee said, adding he would perform the operation himself. ''The bears will be under anaesthetic and won't feel any pain at all,'' he said. Mr Lee is recognised by his co-workers and the other villagers as a bear expert. ''He's worked with bears for over 10 years and knows how to look after them and treat them when they get sick,'' said one of the three staff at the farm, Mr Cheung. Mr Lee is a Weizhou native who learned his trade in Szechuan: ''I used to be in the roast goose business but there was too much competition so I decided to learn bear farming.'' It is a business which he believes has good prospects and which he takes seriously. He is proud of his licence: ''We're the only bear farm in Guangdong province to be officially recognised by the Government.'' Only the genuine article was sold on the farm, he stressed, as he organised a test for real bear bile in a hut which doubled as farm office and processing plant. A grain of powdered bear bile was placed in a bowl of water. ''If it produces a distinctive gold trail it is real, if it just disperses it is fake,'' Mr Lee said. As he expected, a gold trail was seen in the water as the crystalline grain dissolved. The grains are produced by crushing the residue of liquid bear bile dried out in an ordinary domestic toaster. There can be no doubt the conditions at Weizhou are grim, but Mr Cheung, the bears' keeper is proud of the sanitary conditions. ''It's important to keep the place clean and the bears healthy,'' he said. ''Government officials check about 10 times a year.'' The hut appeared clean, the floor was well scrubbed and there was no smell, so as far as Mr Cheung was concerned, everything was in order. It did not even occur to him that it might be cruel to keep the bears locked in misery for life. ''We could not possibly let them out, they may seem tame but they're wild animals after all,'' he said. ''If they got out, we wouldn't be able to control them.'' When the bears get restless during the breeding season, they are given tranquillisers to calm them down. The conditions in the bear farm may be primitive, but clinical orderliness prevails. Bottles of antiseptic powder are dotted about the room. ''We're very keen to avoid infection,'' Mr Cheung said. As he spoke, a bear stretched out its paw towards him. ''It's just trying to play with me,'' he said, hitting the bear's paw to make it withdraw back into the cage. At the end of its working life, a bear might end up on a dinner table at a bear banquet. Although it is forbidden to kill a bear without government permission, Mr Lee confided he had often been approached by Taiwanese businessmen to provide a bear for eating. ''Officially we are supposed to apply to sell it to someone or send it to a breeding centre, but if it is old and I get an offer from a regular, I would consider reaching an agreement, but it has to take place undercover,'' he said. Mr Lee revealed he had such a bear, and would ask $10,000 for it. ''I'll make sure the customers don't try to smuggle it out of the country - they'll have to eat it in a nearby restaurant,'' he said. Around the bear farm, migrant workers from the north gathered for their lunch. They had come down to seek work in nearby factories and were living in basic huts. Despite the fast growing economy in this special economic zone, it was obvious there was widespread poverty. Ms Robinson was troubled. ''What chance for animal welfare when people's welfare has such a long way to go,'' she said. ''We don't want to take away people's livelihoods, we would love to help them, and the animals too,'' she said.