IFAW at 50: How we rescued bears from bear bile farming

May 1 2019

As part of our 50th anniversary, we’ve been looking back on significant moments in our organization’s history. As such, we recently explored the year 1996 and how IFAW rescued bears from bear farms.

Imagine walking down a stone staircase and being plunged into darkness. As your eyes adjust, you realize you’re in a room lined floor to ceiling with cramped metal cages. Packedinto these cages are hundreds of endangered Asiatic black bears, barely able to move from their confinement. And surgically attached to every bear is a catheter used to collect the animals’ bile. To keep the catheter in place, some bears are fitted with “iron vests,” preventing them from scratching the puss-infested, painful sores on their bodies. This is the reality of bear farming.

Bear bile, a digestive fluid stored in the gallbladder of Asiatic black bears, has been an ingredient in traditional Asian medicine for centuries. In the 1980s, China banned the killing of wild bears for their gall bladder, and imported the technique of bear farming from South Korea. Bears caught from the wild are kept in cages where their bile can be drained again and again. By the early 1990s, hundreds of farms popped up across China, producing far more bile than the demand. Driven by profit, the bear farming industry promoted bear bile in tea, shampoo, and power drinks.

In 1993, IFAW was one of the first organizations to expose the horrors of bear farming. Working with local organizations, our experts began raising awareness about the cruelties of bear farming and urging government to take action. In 1996, IFAW established Pan Yu Bear Sanctuary, a new home for the nine bears rescued from two bear farms the Chinese authorities had closed in Guangdong.

On the day of the sanctuary’s opening in December, Grace Ge Gabriel was in attendance. A journalist at the time, Ge Gabriel stood behind the video camera waiting eagerly for the rescued bears to rush out into the warmth of the sunshine. However, years of torture on the bear bile farms had left the bears with physical and mental wounds. One bear Chu Chu, a young male with a long scar along his back from years of rubbing against the metal wires of his cage, was so afraid that every time he stepped on the soft and fresh grass, he jerked his paw back as if he was electrocuted.

“Tears streamed down my face. I was ashamed for mankind,” recalls Ge Gabriel. “The moment Chu Chu took his first step to freedom, I changed from an observer to an advocate.” In 1997, Ge Gabriel quit her job in television, and returned to her native China to start working for IFAW. Since then, behavior change campaigns that Ge Gabriel has led have reduced the trade of endangered species in medicine, as luxury products, and as food. Twenty-three years later, Grace Ge Gabriel is now IFAW’s Regional Director of Asia and has been a pivotal force in spearheading efforts to change how animal welfare is perceived in China.

— Kaila Ferrari, Tiff deGroot, and Alex Johnson, IFAW Digital Team

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