The Chinese government has alarmed wildlife conservationists by suggesting that bile extracted from bears could be a possible treatment for novel COVID-19.
• Bile is usually produced in the liver and stored in the gall bladder.
• Bear bile contains ursodeoxycholic acid or ursodiol, that is helpful in dissolving gallstones and treating liver disease.
• Its use has been recorded in China for thousands of years and has continued into the present day in spite of synthetic versions being available.
• The process of extracting bile from live bears is painful and can cause agony to the animal.
• Enacted in 1989, China’s wildlife protection law sees wild animals as a resource to be used for the benefit of humans. In 2016, it was amended to further legitimize the commercial use of wildlife, asserting explicitly that animals can be used for traditional Chinese medicine.
• The World Health Organization says no cure exists for COVID-19, though some medicines, such as pain relievers and cough syrup, can treat symptoms associated with the disease.
The Chinese government has put out a list of medicines to treat COVID-19 that include both western and traditional Chinese medicine.
Among the ‘cures’ for COVID-19 is ‘Tan Re Qing’ that contains bear bile.
In February, 2020, the Chinese government had proposed to permanently ban the hunting, trading and transportation of wild animals and disallow their captive breeding and consumption.
Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners typically use Tan Re Qing to treat bronchitis and upper respiratory infections.
Illegal bile from wild bears is produced in China and is also imported from wild and captive bears in Laos, Vietnam, and North Korea.
The illegal trade persists even though Asiatic black bears are protected from international commercial trade under the CITES, which regulates cross-border trade of wildlife and wildlife products.
Neglect and disease are common on these farms, and consumers risk ingesting bile from sick bears, which may be contaminated with blood, faeces, pus, urine, and bacteria. Whether they are consumed as meat or medicines, it poses serious threat to humans.
As the world is crippled by the coronavirus pandemic, the public health and environmental risks of wildlife trade are rightly receiving unprecedented attention. There could be no better time to end the use of the parts of threatened wildlife in medicine, especially as recent surveys conducted in China showed the vast majority of respondents were opposed to use of wildlife in medicine. In doing so, China could become a genuine leader in conservation and we hope other countries would follow its example.
Asiatic Black Bear
The Asiatic black bear occupies a narrow band from south-eastern Iran through Afghanistan and Pakistan, across the foothills of the Himalayas, to Myanmar. It occupies all countries in mainland Southeast Asia except Malaysia and has a patchy distribution in southern China.Another population cluster exists in north-eastern China, the southern Russian Far East, and into North Korea.
Illegal hunting for body parts, specifically the gall bladder, paws and skin poses the main threat, together with habitat loss caused by logging, expansion of human settlements and roads.
IUCN list- Vulnerable
CITES- Appendix I