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The Grizzly Truth About Bears

Scientific name:  Ursus Arctos Horriblis

The grand Grizzly Bear is one of the greatest symbols of the vast wilderness.  Once common throughout much of western North America, the grizzly species currently reside in five separate populations in western Canada, Alaska, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Washington, and there are around 30,000 bears in Alaska.  Over the past two hundred years, the number of grizzly bears in North America has declined from an estimated 100,000 individuals in the lower 48 states to around 1,600 - based on current Defenders of Wildlife statistics.  They live in a variety of habitats from meadows to dense forests to the arctic tundra regions.  In 1975 The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the grizzly bear as a threatened species in the lower 48 states under the Endangered Species Act and six recovery ecosystems have been established since that time.  In Alaska, where there is a much greater population, they are classified as a game animal with established hunting regulations. 

All species of bears have come under siege from a multitude of causes including the exotic animal black market, habitat loss, hunting, being killed for their meat and contact with people.  Much of the grizzly’s habitat ranges have been lost or degraded as a result of development, the building of roads, and energy/mineral exploration.  Bears come into contact with humans when they are attracted to food and garbage.  This can often be lethal for the bear. By far, the greatest threat today, however, is their slaughter for the underground black market in bear products for use of paws and gall bladders in Asia and South Korea.   According to the Endangered Species Handbook, a grizzly bear gall bladder can sell for up to $10,000 on the black market and the larger the gall bladder, the higher the price.   Sold at extremely high prices, a record $45,000 was once paid for a single grizzly bear gall bladder (Barron 1991). 

Sold at extremely high prices, a record $45,000 was once paid for a single grizzly bear gall bladder (Barron 1991).  The gall bladders are ground into a powder and bile is extracted for certain medicinal purposes including inflammation, blood purification and digestive problems. Wildlife trafficking is now among the most lucrative trades in the world - worth around $30-50 billion annually - behind only drugs and human sex trafficking.   Killing wild animals is big business.  While much wildlife trade is legal, a huge black market exists - especially in rare and endangered species. Crystallized bear bile has been reported to have sold in South Korea for over $1,000 per gram, which is about twenty times the price of heroin.  The earnings from wildlife trafficking is usually well over a one thousand percent return on investment.  Needless to say, it has become a vicious circle of unnecessary killings and is leading to the demise of many species.  Of the world’s eight bear species, only giant pandas are not hunted specifically for their gall bladders.

The consumption of bear paws, which are cooked as a gourmet delicacy that to some is also health promoting, is widespread in Asia.  Served at Japanese business banquets, they can cost $1,000 per person; a Seoul restaurant advertised bear paw soup in 1994 at $1,000 per bowl.  In 1987, one Chinese city, Harbin, consumed 4,000 pounds of Brown and Asiatic Black Bear paws, and nine live bears were smuggled into Guangzhou City to lease to restaurants in order to lure customers.  Live bears, imported with the pretext of going to zoos, are killed in front of Korean restaurant customers.  A Korean newspaper reported that live bears are lowered onto beds of hot coals, where they are held until their feet are cooked.  In China, servings of bear paws sell for between $346 and $576 each and they are only ordered if the paws are cut off the bear while it is alive (Endangered Species Handbook).  

Organized crime groups find the wildlife black market increasing intriguing and attractive and others are in it too, from petty criminals to international terrorists.  “For the purpose of traditional Chinese medicine, the bear is a walking drugstore,” reported the TRAFFIC network, a wildlife trade-monitoring group.  “Many of the parts of the bear, from fat to brain to spinal cord, have been used for millennia.  The most coveted medicinal part of the bear is the bile within the gall bladder, which gram for gram exceeds the cost of most narcotics.”  As a result, existing laws are typically not enforced, even though possession of protected bear parts may be restricted or prohibited.  When the sale of these parts is made illegal it many times creates an even bigger problem because the prices rise, creating potential profits so great that dealers, poachers and medicine shop owners will risk fines and imprisonment to buy or sell bear parts.  

At least 18 Asian countries have been linked to trade in bear parts, primarily for traditional medicines. In China, bears are kept on farms where their bile is extracted from their gallbladders. These farms now produce some 6,000 kilograms of bear bile each year - more than China's entire annual consumption of bile. But many conservationists are concerned that the over-supply of bear bile from these farms is only creating more consumers of the substance, and not protecting the species. In addition, many of the bears on these farms are species that have been captured from the wild. Though China prohibits the export of bear bile produced on these farms, illegal trade from there continues to occur on a daily basis and there are no prohibitions on imports of the bear products.

An estimated 8,000 to 9,000 brown bear gall bladders are exported from Russia annually.  The brown bear is the national symbol of Russia, yet financial gain from selling their body parts and corruption of government officials pose serious threats for them.  Russian poachers receive about $200 per gallbladder and can sell them in Korea for up to $5,000 each. 
In China and Vietnam, where there the wild bear population is low and declining, thousands of bears are kept confined in cages on bear bile farms, where the bile is harvested through catheters that are inserted through their skin directly into their gall bladders.  One kilo of bear bile there has a street value of about $40,000.    According to the Animal Welfare Institute, The traditional medicine trade in bear products is also practiced in South America, where the endangered Spectacled Bear is struggling for survival in its Andean habitat.  Bear fat is used for bone bruises and claws are used for supposed strength and fertility. 

Bear bile and gall bladders have been used for thousands of years by many Asian countries in the treatment of numerous of ailments including cardiac problems, eye puffiness, asthma, cancer, burns and impotence. It is also popular in the black market as a sexual stimulate, which is very sought after in China.  In Western medicine, synthetically-made bile acid is used to dissolve gall stones and is the only FDA-approved treatment for the liver disease cirrhosis.  Intact bear gall bladders can fetch a few hundred dollars domestically, and up to 30 times that much on the black market in other countries, making them extremely valuable in terms of cost per ounce. Some AIDS patients in the United States take extracts of bear gall bladder as a supposed cure for the disease, according to CBS News.  It is also said to have an anti-HCV virus function and is used for treating Hepatitis C.

All bears and their parts are regulated in international trade by their listing on Appendix I or II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a treaty that includes more than 160 signatory nations. The giant panda, Asiatic black bear, sun bear, sloth bear, spectacled bear, and the Chinese, Mongolian, Bhutanese, and Mexican populations of brown bear are all listed on Appendix I, which prohibits all international commercial trade. All other bear species and populations are listed on Appendix II of CITES, which regulates commercial trade through a permit system. Domestic laws in many bear range states prohibit or regulate bear hunting and the sale of gall bladders; but, not all bear range states protect bears equally. 

The best way to recover grizzly bear populations is to prevent the conflicts that cause them to die.  Success at expanding the range of predators like grizzly bears will be directly proportional to success at reducing conflict between predators and humans.  The Association of Chinese Medicine and Philosophy in Hong Kong claims there are at least 54 alternatives to bear bile, including common rhubarb and a type of gardenia.  A chemical used in Western medicine to dissolve gallbladder stones, Ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), has been  synthesized from cattle bile acid for the past 50 years (Knights 1996).  Twelve tons of this chemical are produced by a single pharmaceutical company in Korea every year.  This product has also been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.  So, there are several alternatives to slaughtering these majestic creatures and contributing to their demise.

Article and most images by Christina Bush

"The greatest thrill is not
to kill, but to let live" 

James Oliver Curwood
(from the "Grizzly King")

Image courtesy of Mark Newman