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12 Jun 07
Detection kit helps crack down on illegal bear bile trade
by Marlowe Hood
Customs police in Australia and Canada are using a new diagnostic kit to crack down on illegal trade in bile extracted from live bears, an animal welfare group said Tuesday.
More than half of 130 traditional Asian medicine shops in eight countries investigated illegally sold products containing bear bile, the World Society for the Protection of Animals reported in a study released the same day.
Most originated from China, where the fluid is drawn off using one of several methods -- all of them painful -- from more than 7,000 animals held in box-like cages on dozens of farms, according to the WSPA.
The procedure is not illegal in China, but all cross-border commerce in bear parts is banned by CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
The scientist who developed the test kit -- which uses antibodies to detect a signature bear protein -- demonstrated its use at a meeting in The Hague of the 171-nation convention.
"Interest from wildlife trade enforcement officials has been very strong," said Kate Sanders, an evolutionary biologist who adapted a technique used to identify species in venomous snake-bite attacks.
Bear bile is a common ingredient in traditional medicines throughout East and Southeast Asia. Its active compound, ursodeoxcholic acid (UDCA), is thought to be effective for ailments ranging from liver disorders to hemorrhoids to hepatitis.
UCDA has been available in a synthetic form for years, say animal rights groups calling for an end to bear farming.
The survey of Asian medicine shops in North America and the Asia Pacific region uncovered dozens of illegal bear bile products. About 15 percent of the stores investigated in the US and Canada sold the contraband, with the percentage increasing to 22 percent in Singapore, 33 percent in Korea, 42 percent in Taiwan and 75 percent in Japan.
The detection kits have been successfully used by customs officers in Australia and Canada, and are slated to go on the market at the end of the year. They will cost no more than 30 euros, Sanders said.
The methods used to extract the bile from farmed animals varies from one country to the next, but all are condemned by animal welfare groups as extremely cruel.
"In Vietnam, farmers typically immobilize the bears with a paralyzing drug, often ketamine," known to recreational drug users as "special K", explained Dave Eastham, head of wildlife for WSPA. "They use ultrasound to locate the bile and then insert a long hypodermic needle to draw off 100 to 150 millilitres of bile," repeating the process once a month he said.
The bears are fully conscious throughout the process.
"We have tapes showing the bears screaming with apprehension just before the procedure begins," he said.
In China, a more primitive technique has been outlawed "but is still very common," said Eastham. The bile drips from a tube -- surgically inserted through the bear's abdomen -- equipped with a tap that can be turned on and off. Extractions are daily, sometimes twice a day. It is like bleeding sap from a Maple tree, "only more painful," he said.
More than half of bears farmed for bile in China do not survive for very long after extraction begins, but those that do can live for up to 10 years.
Five of the world's eight bear species are listed by CITES.
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Chinese Medicine Shops Busted In Bear Goods Sting Tortured bears in volunteers’ minds when they’re posing as customers… They say of sting: Hardest part is pretending to be happy By Teh Jen Lee The New Paper 2 Mar 07
Scheme to stamp out sale of endangered species products in traditional chinese medicine shops Gracia Chiang Today Online 2 Mar 07
China Delegate Says Bear Bile Farming in Bad Taste
Story by Lindsay Beck PlanetArk 8 Mar 07
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