Is the often-illegal market for bear gall bladders and bile for use in traditional Asian medicine starting to shrink? Yes and no and maybe.

At least 1,000 Asiatic black bears (Ursus thibetanus) and sun bears (Helarctos malayanus) live in tiny, cramped cages in South Korea, where they are farmed for their gall bladders, which can sell for up to $25,000 or more for use in traditional Asian medicine. Many of these bears are continually drained of the bile from their gall bladders in the years before they are old enough for their organs to be harvested. As I wrote last year, bile and gall bladders are often used to "treat" conditions ranging from epilepsy to hair loss to impotency. These medicinal claims have no scientific backing.

But the days of bear farming in South Korea may be numbered. Many farmers want out of the business, according to a report from the news site Dong-A Ilbo. Bear farmers, facing a shrinking market and nonexistent profits, are pressuring the South Korean government to take the animals off their hands at a cost the government has calculated as up to $88 million. Farmers say the price could be as low as $2.6 million if the government euthanizes most of the bears, but the South Korean Ministry of Environment says that isn't an option.

So what is driving this change? For one thing, bear farming is immensely unpopular in South Korea. A 2011 poll conducted by the World Society for the Protection of Animals found that 90 percent of South Koreans think bear farming is inhumane and support ending the practice in the country.

Meanwhile, bear farming is incredibly expensive. Under South Korean law, bears cannot be harvested for their gall bladders until they are at least 10 years old. Meanwhile, they each eat about $1,700 worth of food every month. That adds up. Some owners are reportedly turning to the black market to sell their products before the bears are old enough to be legally harvested.

In addition, the legal trade in bear products is extremely limited. Bears are protected under South Korean law as an endangered species—a designation that should prohibit all trade in bear products—but the government granted an exemption in 1981 for bears that were imported from other countries and then farm-raised. (The government banned imports in 1985 and is now considering ending the farming exemption.) Meanwhile, South Korea is a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which forbids international sale of Asiatic black bear products. That means there is no legal international market for South Korean gall bladders or bile.

Yet here lies the irony of South Korea's bear market: although bear farming is unpopular and bear bile imports illegal, South Koreans still buy a lot of bile products—they just tend to buy them outside of South Korea. According to the organizations Animals Asia and the Korean Animal Welfare Association, which are running a campaign to stop the bear bile trade, 30 percent of the 300,000 South Korean tourists who visit China each year buy bear bile products to bring home, a violation of international trade laws.

In fact, it may be the size and scope of Chinese bear farming that is putting South Korea's industry to sleep. China's bear farming industry is 10 to 12 times the size of South Korea's, with at least 12,000 animals being drained of their bile, and has been heavily criticized for its brutality. Poaching of wild bears is also rampant in China. Last month police in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region arrested what was characterized as a criminal gang in possession of bear paws and meat from an estimated 43 animals worth at least $3.15 million. Also last month five of the last 33 wild bears in the Changbai Mountain area of Jilin Province were killed for their gall bladders, fur, meat and paws. The meat and paws are considered delicacies in some areas. Last year a smuggling operation carrying more than 1,000 black bear paws weighing 1.2 metric tons was discovered in the Russian city of Blagoveschensk, which borders China.

So although bear farming may be winding down in South Korea, the practice remains prevalent in China, and demand for bear bile products appears to be as strong as it ever was. Shutting down bear farms in South Korea will be a victory against superstitious traditional medicine and for the animals, but there's still a long way to go before the trade—both legal and illegal—is ended altogether.

Photo: A caged Asiatic black bear in South Korea by Jamie Carter via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons License