The sale of bear bile for use in traditional medicine is rampant throughout 12 Asian countries, despite national and international laws banning or limiting the practice, according to a new report from TRAFFIC International, the wildlife trade monitoring network.

Bile, also known as gall, is a fluid produced in the liver and stored in the gall bladder to help with digestion. Traditional Asian medicine uses bile or gall bladders to "treat" a variety of ailments, including epilepsy, muscle pain, bruises, sore throats, hair loss and hemorrhoids or to "clear" the liver. None of these medicinal claims are supported by science, although one component of bile, ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), is used in gastric bypass surgery and to treat liver disease. (The main source of commercial pharmacological UDCA is cows.)

Bear bile has also recently shown up in nonmedicinal products, such as shampoo and wine, according to the World Society for the Protection of Animals.

TRAFFIC found bear bile for sale in traditional medicine outlets in 12 Asian countries, most notably China, Malaysia, Burma (Myanmar) and Vietnam. The bile often originated in China, Japan, Russia and Laos. Some of these bears are raised captivity. Others are caught in the wild and then placed on "farms," where they are often kept in tiny cages, unable to stand or move while their bile is drained up to three times a day through a catheter or syringe inserted into the gall bladder. Many are kept that way for years, or even a decade. Other bears are killed and their gall are bladders removed.

The two most commonly used bear species for this trade are Asiatic black bears (Ursus thibetanus) and sun bears (Helarctos malayanus), both of which are listed in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which prohibits international commercial trade in the animals, their parts or derivative products. Both species are also listed as vulnerable to extinction on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

Local laws vary, and some countries, such as China, allow the sale of bile within their borders, but all cross-border trade is banned under CITES.

"Unbridled illegal trade in bear parts and products continues to undermine CITES, which should be the world's most powerful tool to regulate cross-border wildlife trade," TRAFFIC's Kaitlyn-Elizabeth Foley, lead author of the report, said in a prepared release. "Both the Asiatic black bear and the sun bear are threatened by poaching and illegal trade. The demand for bile is one of the greatest drivers behind this trade and must be reduced if bear conservation efforts are to succeed."

TRAFFIC says that the vast majority of all bear bile trade is illegal, and that all of it threatens Asian bear species. The organization is calling for better enforcement of existing laws, stricter punishments for those caught "collecting, selling, buying, transporting or keeping" bear parts and derivative products (such as pills and powders), and the immediate closure of illegal bear farms wherever they are found. TRAFFIC also seeks tougher laws in China and Japan, greater endangered species protection for bears in Burma, and more research into Russian sources of bear bile, which were not studied for this report.

The tide might already be turning slightly in China, where a plan by a company that sold bear bile to list itself on a local stock market brought thousands of Twitter posts in protest this February. The protests didn't accomplish anything directly, but they do indicate shrinking support for bear farming in China. Last year, China's Xinhua news agency reported that the number of bear farms in the country had dropped from 480 in the mid-1990s to just 65 in 2010. But that still leaves several thousand bears in captivity on these farms—and the practice remains legal there.


Photo: An Asiatic brown bear kept in a cage before being tapped for its bile. ©TRAFFIC Southeast Asia. Used with permission