BEIJING – In what’s being described as a major victory against abusive animal practices in China, a government-owned company that’s bred bears for traditional medicines has agreed to convert itself into a sanctuary.
Animal welfare advocates hope the agreement, signed Tuesday at a news conference in Beijing, will prompt the government to phase out other bear farms nationwide. Some 70 such breeding facilities are thought to exist in China, caging more than 10,000 bears. Each day, employees milk bile from the bears’ gallbladders, exposing the bruins to infections, organ failures and other fatal diseases.
“This is huge,” said Jill Robinson, the founder of Animals Asia, a nonprofit agency that negotiated the agreement with Flower World, a state-run business in the southern Chinese city of Nanning. “This is the biggest thing we have done since we started.”
Under the pact, Animals Asia will care for 130 Asiatic black bears now caged at the Nanning bear farm. Starting in May, 28 of the sickest animals will be trucked to the group’s China Bear Rescue Center in Chengdu, about 745 miles away. The rest will stay in Nanning, where Animals Asia plans to retain the farm’s staff of 15 and train them in managing the sanctuary.
Bear bile – digestive juice produced by the liver and stored in the gallbladder – has long been part of Chinese traditional medicine, but it became an industry in China only in 1980. That’s when animal breeders in North Korea shared procedures they’d developed to extract bile from living bears. Within two decades, dozens of bear farms had popped up across China, providing bile for pharmaceutical companies that tout its supposed health benefits.