THE Association of Chinese Medicine and Philosophy (ACMP) has agreed to work with wildlife groups gradually to phase out the practice of farming bears for use in traditional Chinese medicines. The International Fund for Animal Welfare with Earthcare are negotiating for land in Hong Kong and in China for researches into herbal alternatives to bear bile. Hong Kong adviser to China's State Council David Chu Yu-lin has already given the organisations some land in China. With the sites, the organisations hope to develop an education centre, herbal garden, organic farms and shops and a small sanctuary environment for Asiatic bears as a symbol of their commitment against bear farming and towards animal welfare projects in China. At a meeting in Beijing earlier this month, the ACMP acknowledged the cruel and inhuman treatment the bears received in farms and the threat the practice posed to the survival of all bear species. They have agreed to work towards phasing out the use of bear products, particularly bear bile which is highly sought after as a supposed method of easing the pain of sore throats, birth pangs and bruises. The association agreed to phase out the use of these products and begin an education programme for their patients advising them of the benefits of herbal alternatives. The Asia representative of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Jill Robinson, said this was the first time a Chinese government organisation had agreed to work with a non-government organisation to reverse a government policy. 'We have a commitment from them to eliminate the practice of bear farming in the future,' she said. It would be impossible to place an immediate ban on bear farming because it would pose a major threat to the severely depleted numbers of wild bears around the world. Bear farming is regarded as a major growth industry in China. There are now about 10,000 farm bears at several hundred bear farms around the country - up from an estimated 4,000 farm bears on 200 farms in 1992. The bears are kept in tiny metal cages which do not allow them to move around, with surgically implanted tubes in their bellies for 'milking' their bile. Many of the farms are illegal, making it difficult to assess the extent of the problem or place any controls on the bear's living standards. The Beijing conference, which was also attended by Earthcare and the Chinese Wildlife Conservation Association, agreed to recommend to the authoritative department of the Government that they close down all sub-standard bear farms which do not comply with Chinese law and conserve all bear species in their natural habitat. They also agreed to promote the use of traditional Chinese medicine on the international market providing it does not contain the parts of animals or endangered plant species. Ms Robinson said that bear farming had not succeeded in fulfilling the demand for bear bile because countries such as Taiwan still believed wild bear bile was better and were now prepared to pay up to US$18,750 (HK$144,806) per gall bladder, leading to an increasing incidence of wild bear slaughter. She said the end result was that there were now two bear bile markets - the very rich who could afford to pay astronomical prices and the normal customers who paid lesser amounts for bile obtained for farm bears.