Bears Could Lose CITES Treaty Protections

By Brian Hansen

WASHINGTON, DC, December 5, 2000 (ENS) - A coalition of animal protection groups and a veteran U.S. Congressman today called on the United Nations to strengthen prohibitions against the poaching and captive breeding of endangered wildlife, particularly bears, for commercial trade purposes.

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A Canadian wildlife official with a bear carcass stripped of the gall bladder (Photo courtesy Bear Watch)

The groups, known collectively as the Species Survival Network, made their case at a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington. They were joined by Congressman George Miller, a California Democrat long regarded by many observers as one of the leading environmental legislators on Capitol Hill.

The news conference was designed to call attention to a development that will occur this week regarding a United Nations treaty known as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITIES). The Convention's Animals Committee will meet this week in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, to deliberate on a host of issues involving the international trade of wildlife.

Among the many items on the committee's agenda is a proposal that could subject hundreds of endangered animals to greater levels of exploitation and slaughter, Species Survival Network (SSN) members maintain. SSN members say the proposal could especially exacerbate the "appalling" practice of poaching and breeding bears in order to use their paws, gall bladders and bile in traditional Chinese medicines.

"This has put a bounty on the head of every living bear, including all the bears in North America," said SSN member Phillip Wilson, a researcher with the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA). "Only the other week a female bear was found dead in Wisconsin with her gall bladder hacked out, and her two cubs had both been shot dead."

Bear gall bile and gall bladders have been used in traditional Chinese medicines for thousands of years. Bear gall is said to alleviate spasms and delirium caused by extensive burns by cooling the blood and detoxifying the body. It has also been used to treat intestinal, liver and cardiac illnesses, including parasitic and bacterial infections.

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A bear caged at a Chinese bear bile farm. A tube has been inserted into the bear's abdomen in order to extract its bile (Photo courtesy WSPA)

Critics say that there are alternatives to many of the medicinal applications for bear parts, and that these alternatives should be used because too many bears are being killed for their galls and bile. Critics also note that many bears are now being killed so that their parts can be used in non-essential products, such as cosmetics, shampoos, wines and herbal teas.

Currently, the international trade of bear parts for commercial purposes is prohibited under the CITES treaty. But the proposal that will be on the table in West Virginia this week could undo that, critics lament.

In accordance with the proposal, the CITES Animals Committee will prepare a list of species that are recognized as being "critically endangered," or difficult to breed in captivity. Any species not making the list could be bred for commercial purposes under the sole authority of the country in which the breeding facility is located. Other parties to CITES would have no grounds to object to such practices.

Phillips and other SSN members say that if bears do not make the CITES committee's list, China's "inhumane" captive breeding industry will flourish. That outcome would also create more demand for bear parts in the Canada and the U.S., where bears are already being killed illegally for their galls and bile, Phillips said.

Phillips and other WSPA members last year carried out an investigation of 11 Chinese facilities where bears are bred for their parts. Phillips called the findings "alarming," saying that the animals he observed were subjected to "appalling levels of cruelty and neglect."

"Female bears are so stressed that they often eat their own cubs," he said. "Cubs that do survive are taken away from their mothers at two to three months old and are forced to perform circus tricks, such as walking on a tightrope or throwing a ball, to entertain visitors to the farms."

Once the bears are two to three years old, they are used for bile extraction, Phillips noted.

The bile extraction process involves a surgical procedure where tubes are inserted into the animals' abdomens, often without anesthesia or the oversight of a veterinarian. Phillips said that more than 50 percent of the bears die on the operating table. Those that do survive growl in pain and chew on their own paws in order to distract themselves from the agonizing milking process, Phillips said.

Alarmed by what they found in China, Phillips and his colleagues decided to see if bear bile products were being imported into North America in order to supply the Asian communities in Canada and the U.S. The team investigated 65 shops in nine cities where traditional Chinese medicines are sold. The U.S. cities investigated were San Francisco, Chicago, New York and Washington D.C.

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Elizabeth, a bile bear caged at the Huizhou Farm. Rescued by animal protection groups, she is now living at a sanctuary in South China operated by the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Asian Animal Protection Network(Photo courtesy Asian Animal Protection Network)

"What we found was alarming," Phillips said. "Of the 65 shops surveyed, 51 shops - 78 percent - were found to be selling bear gall bladder or bile products."

Ninety one percent of the U.S. traditional Chinese medicines (TCM) shops surveyed were selling the illegal bear products, Phillips added.

"North American TCM consumers are helping to fuel the bear farming industry in China, an industry that is founded on extreme abuse and exploitation of bears," Phillips declared.

Phillips called on the CITES panel to include bears on the treaty's forthcoming endangered species list, which he said would be a positive step towards curbing poaching and captive breeding practices. He also called on U.S. lawmakers to pass the so-called Bear Protection Act, which would provide uniform prohibitions against the import and export of bear galls.

The points made by Phillips and the other SSN members on Tuesday were echoed by Miller, who has functioned as a Congressional observer at two CITES conferences on endangered species.

"It's very important that we make every effort to alert the [CITES] Animal Committee that will be meeting in West Virginia that we do not want to downgrade the protections for the farming of these bears," Miller said. "To suggest that the Chinese should be rewarded through a program of self-certification would devastate any opportunity to try to improve the care of these animals."

Miller, a member of the House's powerful Resources Committee, noted that the panel has solicited the testimony of a number of adherents to traditional Chinese medicine. Miller said he "understands culturally" why people want to hold on to the practice, but he said that the testimony he has heard suggests other motivations for the bear products trade.

"Time and again [TCM practitioners] have told us that this is not essential," Miller said. "The fact of the matter is that [bear gall] is not essential to take care of individuals who come down with these ailments."

Also on the table at the CITES committee meeting in West Virginia this week are issues involving international commercial trade in tigers, sharks, musk deer, freshwater turtles and Black Sea bottlenose dolphins.

More information on the treaty can be found online at: http://www.wcmc.org.uk/CITES/eng/index.shtml.