Endangered status

Asiatic black bear - endangered status

All eight species of Asiatic black bear are listed on the Appendices of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), with five being listed on Appendix I. Although captive bred (but not wild) animals on Appendix I of CITES can be traded under license, no bear farms are currently registered with CITES, therefore all commercial (international) trade from bear farms is prohibited.

Despite the fact that all of the bear farming nations in Asia are signatories to CITES, they have failed to implement the trade controls necessary to enforce the agreement. The CITES Management Authority in China is even reported to have attempted to implement a system in which bile from farmed black bears could be traded internationally. CITES is also limited in that it only addresses international trade, whereas trade occurring within a country's borders is regulated solely by the individual country.

Population figures for moon bears in China are causing concern, with estimates ranging from 50,000 to as low as 16,000. Some estimates put the total Asia-wide population at only 16,000. Widespread illegal killing of bears and trade in bear parts, combined with loss of habitat indicate that this species is likely to be declining in most areas, especially in Southeast Asia and China.  A report in May 2011 by TRAFFIC, the wildlife monitoring network, found that poaching and illegal trade in bears, “continues unabated”, and on a large scale, mostly in China, but also in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Myanmar and Vietnam. Although actual data on population sizes or trends are lacking, it seems likely, given the rate of habitat loss and uncontrolled exploitation, that the world population has declined by 30–49% over the past 30 years, and that this rate will continue unless abated by the implementation of significant conservation measures.

Endangered status by country

Bear farming and domestic trade in farmed bear products is legal in China. However, in 2009, 19 of China’s mainland provinces committed to becoming bear farm free, and in 2010 another province, Shandong, closed its last bear farm, making 20 of 31 provinces in China bear farm free.

Yet conversely, while the total number of bear farms has diminished in recent years (officials claim that by January 2008, China had closed more than 400 bear farms, reducing the number from more than 480 in the 1990s to 68 in 2008), the number of bears being farmed has actually risen as larger commercial enterprises meet a growing demand from China's emerging middle classes, with official figures indicating more than 7,000 bears being farmed. Animals Asia Foundation, a leading animal welfare organisation devoted to bringing bear farming and the bile trade to an end, fears the figure could be much higher – around 10,000. Conservation officials in China have argued that bear farming reduces the pressure on bears in the wild. However, as Adam M. Roberts, in his Advocacy for Animals article “Bears on the Brink,” reports, bear farming has had no positive effect on the poaching of wild bears, and he calls on the United States  to pass national legislation to protect bears in the US, and to inhibit international trading in bear parts.

Although the Chinese government claims to discourage the capture of wild bears (no permits to capture bears have been issued since 1989), few farms are stocked with anything except wild caught bears. As proved by the numerous bears found on the farms with limbs maimed from having been caught in traps, many bears are illegally poached to supplement existing farm populations, and the proliferation of farms stocked with wild caught bears is directly affecting China's wild populations. (Breeding on bear farms is extremely rare, as the health of the bears is so badly compromised by the brutal nature of their confinement.) According to WSPA (World Society for the Protection of Animals), “The bear farming industry in China is giving rise to a substantial amount of international illegal trade and measures put in place to stop the illegal export of bear products out of China are clearly not working.” WSPA has urged the Chinese government to instigate a phase-out of the bear farming industry in China.

Today, driven by profit, bear farmers are expanding the scale of their industry, engaging in illegal export of bile. Yet because the market has been saturated with bear bile, many farmers have now turned to producing non-essential products, such as shampoo, wine and tea, to use the surplus. These products have no known health benefit, but the association with traditional Chinese medicine allows the farmer to continue making a profit by exploiting this magnificent species and the wealth of naive consumers. Economics, not conservation, is therefore the primary driver behind bear farming in China.

Many people, including veteran doctors of Chinese medicine, believe pharmaceutical companies have exaggerated the medicinal value of bear bile products. The bile extraction procedure causes increased infection within the gall bladder and surrounding organs such as the liver, and bear farmers use a significant amount of antibiotics to treat infection thus caused. Consequently, the bile extracted from the sick bears is usually infected with pus and faeces, and could very likely cause secondary contamination, threatening the health of those ingesting the bile products. Indeed, the number of cases across Asia of the adverse, and potentially fatal, effects of ingesting bear bile have increased over the last few years as consumption has increased, and in an ever more globalised world, issues of supply chain and traceability, as well as cruelty, have understandably been raised.

China still does not have any animal welfare legislation on its statute books, making it impossible to prosecute for cruelty against animals. However, lawmakers are calling for the escalation of anti cruelty laws which would make bear farming illegal overnight, and a law is currently being drafted and debated through China's parliament, the National People's Congress.

In 2005, Vietnam agreed to phase out their bear farms. Currently bear bile farming is therefore technically illegal, although it is still widespread. According to official statistics, there were about 4,000 farmed bears in Vietnam in 2008 (90% of whom were moon bears) with another 600 captive bears used for display purposes.

Bear bile farming was banned in 1992 by the Korean Government, which declared it illegal to extract bile from living bears, and all domestic trade in bears is illegal. However, according to TRAFFIC EAST ASIA, breeding still continues on the farms and bears over the age of 10 can be legally slaughtered and their gall bladders sold. Moreover, there is no record of the actual number of bears now being held in the farms,  there are no regulations providing for any specific method of slaughter, and there is a widespread belief that the bears are killed inhumanely. All of these conditions are against CITES agreement.

Domestic trade of bear bile is legal but regulated in Japan.