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Traditional Chinese medicine

China's bear farms prompt public outcry

Some 10,000 bears are farmed in China to procure their bile for traditional Chinese medicine. This cruel practice has stimulated a wave of condemnation across the country.

Bile is repeatedly collected from live bears through a surgically introduced opening into the bile duct, a procedure that is painful and distressing to the animals (see www.animalsasia.org). Some pharmaceutical companies use a variation of this technique that they say does not hurt the bears.

Even though the ursodeoxycholic acid found in bear bile has been available in synthetic form for decades, many wealthy patients prefer the natural product. Despite the disputed health benefits of bear bile, this has been an incentive for companies to promote bear farming.

The animal-welfare organization Animals Asia Foundation, headquartered in Hong Kong, has been a pioneer in challenging the bear-farming industry. It was recently accused of undermining traditional medical practices by the Chinese Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine. After 10 years of fighting alone, the foundation's work now has strong public backing. Many delegates at the National People's Congress last month declared that the industry should not be tolerated in a modern civilized society (see go.nature.com/vg96sd; in Chinese).

China needs to promote substitutes for bear bile through further campaigning and public education. Legislation should be introduced for an animal welfare bill, which might eventually lead to a ban on bear farming.

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Sheng, X., Zhang, H. & Weng, Q. China's bear farms prompt public outcry. Nature 484, 455 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/484455c

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