Bears, “Milked” and Killed for the Bile, Are One of the Least-Known Victims of COVID-19 Pandemic

Bipartisan group of lawmakers, led by House Foreign Affairs Chairman, introduces Bear Poaching Elimination Act

Survey the world in search of the worst localized horrors meted out against animals — the animal sacrifices of the Gadhimai Festival in Nepal every five years, the fish-in-a-barrel shooting of captive lions in South Africa, the water-borne butchering of pilot whales in a Faroe Islands inlet, the middle-of-the night slaughtering of two million kangaroos a year in their native habitats in Australia for their skins to make athletic shoes. Even with all such barbarities in mind, you could make a case for bear-bile farms, an organ-extraction industry centered in China and Vietnam, as the very worst.

It’s hard to believe that this enterprise, with so medieval a feel, had its origins in the 1980s. The practice has been in decline — down in number by perhaps two-thirds from its high point — but is still reportedly draining the bodily fluids out of thousands of bears kept as captives.

The hapless captive victims — Asiatic black bears, endangered in the wild and known as “moon bears” for the bright patch of fur often in the shape of a crescent on their upper chests — are trapped in the wild and relegated to modern-day dungeons. Displaying the scars of capture delivered by snare or bullet, they are held behind concrete and steel for one purpose: harvesting the bile stored in their gallbladders.

According to Animals Asia, the advocacy group that helped secure agreements from South Korea and Vietnam to phase out its bear farms and that has tried to achieve the same result in China, the customary practice is to jam a catheter through their skin and into the gallbladder, where the bile is stored. It is inhumane, unhygienic, and debilitating, causing lesions, infections, and other life-threatening conditions. The animals endure serial, invasive extractions. “Some bears are even fitted with ‘metal jackets,’” according to Animals Asia, “designed to keep bile-draining catheters in place.”

In a knock-you-off-your-feet tremor of the COVID-19 crisis, some Chinese government officials declared that Tan Re Qing — with its main ingredient being bear bile — can be used as a palliative for the symptoms of the virus.

“If one abomination could yield an antidote for the consequences of another,” writes Matthew Scully in an essay in National Review, “Tan Re Qing would surely be just the thing to treat a virus loosed in the pathogenic filth and blood-spilling of Wuhan’s live market. There’s actually a synthetic alternative to the bile acids, but Tradition can be everything in these matters, and devotees insist that the substance must come from a bear, even as real medical science rates the whole concoction somewhere between needless and worthless.”

In 2022, the Chinese Ministry of Health reiterated that bear bile was an acceptable palliative treatment for COVID-19. A surge in COVID-19 cases some months ago underscored the stakes for bears.

While the phase-out of bear bile farms in South Korea and Vietnam is the best of news, it will have consequences for wild bears if demand does not recede. There are eight species of bears in the world, and every one of them is at risk from this trade, since their gallbladders and bile are indistinguishable. Wildlife traffickers are known to take gallbladders from American black bears, grizzly bears, polar bears, or other bear species that are scarce across their range. In July 2021, in testimony submitted to the House Natural Resources Committee, a senior official from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expressed support for national legislation to address the problem, noting that “bear gallbladder trafficking is big business” and “the price for an illegal bear gallbladder can exceed $1,000 depending on the market.”

“The United States does not want the absence of wildlife trade policies in China to undermine U.S. wildlife protection efforts,” said Brenna Galdenzi, president and co-founder of Protect Our Wildlife. “Vermont is one of the few states without a ban on trading in bear gallbladders, and I see evidence that wildlife dealers are paying cash for these parts and likely driving up bear-kill numbers in our state. The only reason that a dealer pays for gallbladders is to send the bile to China.” 

In some cases, at bear-check stations where hunters bring in just-shot bears for weighing and tooth extraction, wildlife traders hang around the margins and offer cash for gallbladders. While black bears are one of the few species of bears in the world that have been holding their own, there are imperiled subspecies — including the Florida black bear and the Louisiana black bear, both vulnerable to bouts of poaching and the bisecting of their habitats by roadbuilding and the march of human settlements.

The Bear Poaching Elimination Act

That’s just one reason why House Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Mike McCaul, R-Texas, and Reps. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Penn., and Annie Kuster, D-N.H., yesterday introduced the Bear Poaching Elimination Act, H.R. 3518, forbidding any interstate transport or foreign sales of gallbladders and bile. It seeks to eliminate the killing of bears for trafficking of a single body part of the animals. Senators John Kennedy, R-La., and Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., with an array of other Senate supporters, are expected to introduce the companion legislation soon.

“The cruel treatment of bears in countries like China has harmed these creatures and risked their extinction,” said Rep. McCaul. “The U.S. must lead in implementing responsible and humane wildlife trade policies — just like my Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act, which banned the trading of shark fins. Today, I’m proud to introduce the Bear Protection Act along with Reps. Lieu, Fitzpatrick, and Kuster to help end bear poaching and protect these species from exploitation.”

Two decades ago, citing rampant poaching in Kentucky and throughout the United States, then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced identical legislation, noting that “bear gallbladders are worth more than their weight in gold, fetching a price of about $10,000 a piece!” He said the bill was aimed at “the growing illegal trade in bear parts, in which at least 18 Asian countries are known to participate. The poaching of bears is a national problem that is destined to become worse.”

That’s precisely why we need the Bear Poaching Elimination Act to shield our bear populations from this trade and to act as a high-bar standard for the rest of the world to emulate. Demand for bile in China, South Korea, the United States, or other nations with an appetite for Traditional Chinese Medicine translates into exploitation of wild and captive bears. As Chairman McCaul indicated, we shouldn’t kill bears for their gallbladders and harm them for their bile, just as we shouldn’t kill rhinos for their horns, elephants for their tusks, or sharks for their fins. These days, we have other options.

We’ve got to leave behind the whole set of archaic, inhumane practices where we treat wildlife as potluck or potion, as textiles or trinkets in the making. The COVID-19 crisis is an air-siren to be heard and heeded throughout the world, including for the protection of wildlife.

You can make a difference today by contacting your legislators here and asking them to support The Bear Poaching Elimination Act to put an end to bear poaching here.