Asian countries have failed to stem the illegal cross-border trade of bear bile amid robust demand for folk remedies harvested from the live animals, an anti-smuggling group said yesterday.
The trafficking of bile-based traditional medicine is a key threat to the region’s bears, especially Asiatic black bears whose numbers in the wild have declined to as few as 25,000 in recent years, partly because of poaching, TRAFFIC Southeast Asia said in a report.
Digestive juice drained from the gall bladders of bears has been used for centuries across Asia to treat ailments ranging from sore throats and muscle aches to epilepsy and hemorrhoids.
“The demand for bile is one of the greatest drivers behind [the illegal bear parts] trade and must be reduced if bear conservation efforts are to succeed,” TRAFFIC official Kaitlyn-Elizabeth Foley said.
Researchers found bile pills, powders and ointments in more than 50 percent of traditional medicine shops they visited in China (including Hong Kong), Malaysia, Myanmar and Vietnam over the past year, TRAFFIC’s report said.
More than 30 percent of such businesses in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand also sold those products, it said.
Other countries, such as Cambodia, Laos and Singapore, had stores selling them, but to a lesser extent.
All the territories had a significant amount of bile products that the stores claimed originated from other countries, especially China, TRAFFIC said.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species forbids the cross-border trade of bear bile.
In other signs of smuggling, Hong Kong’s shops sold bile pills believed to be from Japan, South Korea had products from Russian wild bears and Myanmar had whole bear gall bladders from Laos, the report said.
Bile products come from farms in various nations where thousands of captive bears are legally used for bile extraction. Those products are supposed to be sold only in the country of origin.
TRAFFIC urged Asian authorities to step up enforcement by shutting down medicine outlets that offer bear parts from other nations. It also called for strong penalties against people caught illegally collecting or transporting bear parts.
Over the years, wildlife activists have also voiced concerns that bile collection can cause agony and slow death for bears.