Biggest Chinese producer of bear bile seeks synthetic alternative

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 July, 2014, 3:38am
UPDATED : Thursday, 31 July, 2014, 11:10pm

The nation's largest manufacturer of bear bile is looking at synthetic alternatives, a move welcomed by animal activists.

Shanghai's Kai Bao Pharmaceuticals - which accounts for half of the 30 tonnes of bear bile produced in China annually - will receive state subsidies to conduct research and clinical testing of the new method.

The bile, used in Chinese medicine, is extracted through holes cut into the abdominal walls and gall bladders of Asiatic black bears - a practice condemned as cruel by rights groups.

Jill Robinson, founder of Animals Asia Foundation who has been instrumental in fighting the trade, said: "It's the first time we've heard this ... initiated by a large company as well.

"It's been a long time coming, and this is really welcome news."

Animals Asia said the Ministry of Science and Technology should be congratulated for supporting such a research project.

The company aims to develop a bear bile equivalent using poultry bile and biotransformation technology, with Kai Bao owning the intellectual property rights.

According to a company statement uploaded on the Shanghai Stock Information Service website, the central government will provide a 5.3 million yuan (HK$6.6 million) subsidy, followed by a 6 million yuan investment by the regional government, on top of a company investment of 12 million yuan.

"The project will benefit the protection and sustainable use of endangered medicinal animal resources and provide raw materials with stable and controllable quality for developing new drugs and bear bile powder products," the statement read.

Robinson said the company's action would help to protect the endangered Asiatic black bear, and also improve public health. Bile often contained foreign bodies such as ulcers and contaminants such as urine and faeces, as it was taken from diseased and dying bears, Robinson said.

This posed a risk to those who consumed it, she said. "Synthetic versions of bear bile benefit the bears, the traders as well as the patients," she said.

Hong Kong-based Animals Asia has been raising awareness about the cruelty of the practice and lobbying the central government since the 1990s. 

Hong Kong Chinese Herbalists Association president Kwan Chi-yee said a synthetic alternative would benefit both the Chinese medicine industry and patients alike. He said bear bile was used less and less despite its prevalence in old Chinese medicinal recipes.

But Kwan has doubts about alternatives. "There needs to be more clinical proof on the effectiveness of it," he said.