BEIJING - A Chinese medicine professional denied claims that the practice of extracting bear bile is cruel and promised to give media a chance to visit the country's bear farms.
The extraction of bear bile for medicinal purposes has met opposition from animal rights activists in recent years. Opponents say the bears are subjected to crude surgery that leaves permanent wounds in their abdominal walls and gall bladders, causing serious diseases and even death.
The protest became increasingly intense in past weeks after a pharmaceutical company in Fujian province that makes medicine from bear bile filed for approval by the Growth Enterprise Board to be listed on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange.
The company, Guizhentang Pharmaceuticals, is expected to use the funds raised by the initial public offering (IPO) to expand the size of its farm and the number of its bears, media reported.
Fang Shuting, head of the China Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), said there is a great misunderstanding among the media and the public about the process of extracting bear bile.
"Such cruel practices happened more than 20 years ago," he said at a news conference on Thursday afternoon.
"The process of extracting bear bile now only takes about 10 seconds. During that short period, the black bear feels no pain or any strange sensations, and can play and eat as usual," he said.
"Based on what I saw on the farms, the bears look very comfortable after the extraction."
He did not clarify when a farm would open to the media, nor did he specify which farm would be opened.
"But it is not possible to completely open bear farms to the public because germs may pose potential risks to the bears kept for bile extraction if a large number of people pay a visit," Fang said.
In 2006, China had 68 registered bear farms where about 7,000 black bears were kept for bile extraction, statistics from the State Forestry Administration showed.
The number of bear farms increased to 98 by 2011, and it is estimated that about 20,000 black bears are kept for bile extraction, Animals Asia Foundation statistics showed.
Fang denied that the association has a "direct connection" to Guizhentang's IPO plan. But the company is listed as a member of the association, according to the association's website.
"Animal experts and veterinarians should also be allowed to enter the bear farms, if he wants to prove what he says," said Sun Quanhui, an official from the World Society for the Protection of Animals.
"I don't believe it at all that extracting bile is as easy and comfortable as Fang said. Why doesn't he extract the bile from his body in the same way to prove it?" wrote a female netizen from Chengdu, posting under the name Liangxiaotangtang on Sina Weibo, a popular micro-blogging site.
Bear bile is used in traditional medicine in China and other Asian countries because it is thought to have health benefits, such as detoxification, cleansing the liver and improving vision.
Years of research has shown that China can produce drug substitutes that have the same function as bear bile, said Jiang Qi, former vice-president of Shenyang Pharmaceutical University, in January.
But so far, government authorities have not approved the substitute drugs for sale on the market.
Farm staffer says bears treated in humane fashion
China Daily reporter Xu Lin was invited on an arranged tour of a bear farm operated by Guizhentang Pharmaceuticals last September to observe the process of extracting bear bile.
HUI'AN, Fujian - Dozens of bears rambled in a walled playground while some climbed a steel construction. When a staff member clapped his hands, hungry bears got close to him in expectation.
Such was the scene at a bear farm in Hui'an county, Fujian province, affiliated with Guizhentang Pharmaceuticals. The farm was established in 1993.
The efforts of Guizhentang to become listed on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange are being opposed by animal rights activists, who say that the company's practice of extracting bear bile for traditional Chinese medicine is cruel.
There are nearly 600 Asiatic black bears in the farm, which covers 80 hectares, and the company's aim is to raise 1,200 bears in total.
The staff member declined to reveal his name but said he had worked there for three years after graduating from college with a major in animal management.
"These are all young bears, and they have sufficient space to exercise in the farm. When they reach the age of 3, they will receive an operation," he said.
The surgery makes use of the contractility of the gallbladder cortex and moves it a little bit to make a natural tube. The cut on the surface of the gallbladder is less than 1 centimeter but becomes about 3 millimeters when it scars over, just like the core of a basketball valve, he said.
The staff member directed visitors to the room where bile is extracted from the bears.
The room was connected by a gate to a small cage, which is a little larger than the size of a bear. When a worker opened the gate and put food in the small cage, the bear crawled and lay down on his chest to have its meal.
The worker quickly sterilized the wound on the bear's belly with an alcohol-dipped cotton ball and inserted a slim 11-centimeter drainage tube into it. As the bear bile flowed down through the hollow iron tube into a container, the bear continued to eat.
The feeder said the process lasts about 15 to 20 seconds. More than 300 bears are drained at 6 am and 5 pm each day, and about 8 to 10 milliliters of bear bile produces 1 gram of bile powder.
He said a bear can secrete 1,500 to 1,800 milliliters of bear bile every day, while workers extract about 130 milliliters on average in a day. In this way, a bear can provide bile for about 20 years.
He insisted the bear's health is not affected but said they had no health reports to provide as evidence.