Bear bile was found to be part a traditional Chinese medicine used to relieve respiratory symptoms of Covid-19 among serious cases in China recently.
This came a month after the Chinese government announced the ban on wildlife trade and has triggered a brouhaha among animal lovers and conservation groups.
Bear bile powder part of TCM formula recommended to treat severe Covid-19 cases in China
According to the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a UK-based non-profit that exposes wildlife crimes, Tan Re Qing injections were listed amongst recommended treatments published by the National Health Commission of China on Mar. 4.
Tan Re Qing injections, which are made up of herbs and bear bile powder, are commonly used to treat acute bronchitis in China.
However, there is no evidence that Tan Re Qing injections are effective.
In addition, the injections could cause allergic reactions due to the use of bile gall, according to a 2016 study backed by the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences.
Ethical and health issues
Bile from bears is secreted by the liver and stored in the gallbladder, and is extracted from live bears, such as Asiatic black bears, in bear bile farms where the live animals are kept in small cages.
National Geographic reported that bear bile farms in China and Southeast Asia, involves bears being subjected to abuse, such as having a catheter, syringe, or pipe inserted into their gallbladder so that bile can be extracted often.
Animals Asia, a non-profit which aims to end bear bile farming, said that the methods of extracting bile are unsanitary and cause pain, suffering and infections to the bears.
Consumers risk ingesting bile from sick bears, which may be contaminated with blood, faeces, pus, urine, and bacteria as diseases are common on bear bile farms, Animals Asia added.
Wildlife activist from EIA, Aron White told National Geographic that "all wildlife farms pose health risks, regardless of whether the animals are being bred for meat or traditional medicine".
White added that “the vast majority of traditional Chinese medicine doesn’t contain any wildlife parts. This doesn’t need to be a threat to wildlife."
He emphasised that most TCMs involve plants and not animals.
Using wild animals for research purposes is still legal in China
According to EIA, illegal bile extract from wild bears exists in China and that bear bile from wild and captive bears is also imported from other countries, such as Laos, Vietnam and North Korea, despite protection from international commercial trade under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
Wildlife advocates worry that the recommendation of Tan Re Qing, will increase the trade in illegal wildlife products, such as bear bile, and justify animal abuse.
Illegal traders have been sharing the recommendations on their social media sites, reported National Geographic.
White told National Geographic:
"We were witnessing how this government recommendation was being coopted by the traffickers to advertise their illegal products as a treatment."
While China has banned the consumption and trade of wild animals last month, the use of wildlife for medical use and display and for scientific research is still allowed.
This presents a potential loophole for illegal wildlife trade to continue.
Top photos via EIA International's website and Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals