Over the past five years, I have received many letters asking me to help save bears locked up in small and dirty cages. On one occasion, some people who work for a well-known overseas publisher came to visit me and offered to collect money to buy some land so that these unfortunate bears could be resettled in a more suitable environment.
It is very moving to receive such letters and offers, and it shows that some people are willing to stand up for the welfare of mistreated animals. The sad thing is that when I forward these letters to the departments responsible for animal welfare, the authorities usually reply that the animal concerned has been legally registered or they will monitor the situation more closely, and the matter ends there with no definite outcome. The bears remain behind bars and I keep on getting letters about it.
The Wildlife Conservation Act (野生動物保育法) says that members of the public are not allowed to keep, exhibit or trade in protected wild animals. “Legal registration” refers to cases where an animal was already in captivity prior to the law being enacted, in which case the person keeping the animal is obliged to register.
However, the law does not define in detail what constitutes animal abuse, making it difficult for those enforcing the law to intervene. The existing laws do not completely meet the needs of departments entrusted with overseeing privately owned wildlife, nor do they comply with the public’s rising awareness of conservation or meet adequate standards of animal welfare.
It has been said that you can get a good idea of how civilized a society is by looking at people’s attitude toward animals. Regrettably, some people who keep animals think it is enough just to give them food and shelter. They may not even think it necessary to feed the animal regularly or give it proper food, and it is not uncommon for animals to be given swill that has gone rotten. It is shocking to see so many stories about people abusing or abandoning their cats and dogs.
Is it because animal protection laws are inadequate, or because they are not effectively enforced? Or is it because people still have not grasped the true meaning of respect for living things?
In some parts of North America and Japan it is permitted to hunt bears, but hunting is managed and monitored by the government, research establishments and civic groups. In these places, members of the public may purchase licenses to hunt a limited quota of bears as suited to the local conditions.
However, the law in most places strictly prohibits commercial trading of hunted animals to remove any financial motive for hunting illegally. Consequently, hunting in these places has not pushed bear populations into decline.
These places recognize that living animals do not just have an ecological value: They have commercial value, too. People who go to see them put money into the local economy.
In contrast, in many parts of the world that are dominated or influenced by Chinese culture, wild animals go for a higher price when they are dead. This has put many species, like tigers, rhinoceroses and bears under threat of extinction. Big animals like these have few natural enemies, but now they are disappearing into the mouths of humans.
A hunter in Kaohsiung said he sold a bear he killed in 1996 for NT$160,000. At the time, the market price for 1kg of bear meat was nearly NT$1,500. Although Taiwanese Aborigines rarely set out with the purpose of hunting bears, it is not surprising that they may shoot them on sight when such a financial reward exists.
No matter whether they are purposely hunted or not, the fact that Formosan black bears are threatened with extinction has not stopped them from being bought and sold.
Research indicates that people in Taiwan may be tempted to eat mountain game because they think it has tonic effects, out of curiosity or they like the taste. Bear meat fetches a high price because it is rare and because people think it has medicinal properties
Chinese people have a superstitious belief that wild game meat contains special health benefits. They will eat animal brains to strengthen their own brains, drink blood to strengthen their own blood and eat genitals for the sake of virility.
Even if they are not ill, they will eat such things in the hope of invigorating their bodies. Since ancient times, bear’s paw has been thought of as a delicacy and bear’s gall as a precious medicine. Research indicates that Asians’ appetite for bear parts has led to the illegal slaughter of bears in other parts of the world, to the extent that some of them, including Malay bears, spectacled bears and brown bears, are threatened in the wild.
Even in North America, where wildlife management is strict, is it not unknown for bear carcasses to be found dumped by unlicensed hunters with their gall bladders cut out and their paws chopped off.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora strictly forbids international commercial trade in all eight species of bear and their parts.
Taiwan classifies the Formosan black bear as an endangered and protected species, and bears are also protected by laws in most other Asian countries. The hunting and trading of bears is banned in all these countries, yet these illegal activities are still the main threat to their conservation.
This means we have to redouble our efforts to protect the Formosan black bear. Everyone must work together to stop the use of bear products, and the authorities should increase their efforts to investigate and crack down on smuggling and illegal sales, as well as raising public awareness about the importance of conservation.
Hwang Mei-hsiu is an associate professor at National Pingtung University of Science and Technology’s Institute of Wildlife Conservation.
TRANSLATED BY JULIAN CLEGG
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