Bile Bears

Greentings Everyone! The title of this post may read Bile Bears, but to be able to even start talking about these bears there will be plenty of ground to cover. If you are not familiar with this specific Bear, do not despair, your knowledge of Bears and potentially all other animals is still intact. Bile Bears are not actually a species of bear, they are in fact a term that categorizes bears in a particular predicament. Their predicament is complex and therefore we must delve into the mysterious world of Traditional Chinese Medicine; its origins, its practices, the current state of affairs, its shortfalls and most importantly, we will be discussing the science behind it. Unfortunately for the bears, this post will be long, but it is important that we get all the information down so that we are clear and are able to portray our message. A message that is crucial to the wellbeing of humans and animals further down the road. This message will take us on a 2,000-year long exploratory journey through the Sino sphere all the way back to the Han Dynasty and the ruler they called the Yellow Emperor. This post, we write for the sake of these bears and all other species currently facing life threatening situations.

The Yellow Emperor

The first evidence of therapeutic practices in the Middle Kingdom dates back long before the Yellow Emperor came about. Traces of these first concepts are from the Shang Dynasty, 3,500 years ago, over 1,500 years before the Yellow Emperors famous script “The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon”, the oldest known work on Chinese therapeutic practices. This is the oldest known work on paper mainly because during the Shang Dynasty, the inscriptions were found on turtle shells or bones and were not very specific. Getting back to the Yellow Emperor and his work, believed to have been compiled in the Han Dynasty and comprised of two texts each with eighty-one chapters, the work dives into topics ranging from diagnostic methods to acupuncture, making up the foundation of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Foundation that also heavily relies on herbal medicines as to achieve the desired “cure”. These so-called “cures” are not what we would usually describe as a “cure” in the western world. Whilst western medicine “cures” a certain anatomical ailment, Traditional Chinese Medicine is mainly focused on the body’s vital energy or in other words the Qi. This vital energy which we will call Qi from here on out must flow unimpeded for health to thrive. All TCM therapies have the sole objective of balancing your meridians, which when unbalanced bring upon disease or disharmony. Qi is defined and divided up into five functions each with its own therapies: Actuation, Warming, Defense, Containment and Transformation. Imagine that you have a bloody nose and you decide to approach your local TCM doctor for an appointment, depending on how old-school he/she is, he/she may diagnose your bloody nose as a disharmony in your warming function and prescribe an acupuncture session, so far so good right? Well, he/she may also diagnose you with a , “Liver fire rushes upwards and scorches the lung, injuring the blood vessels and giving rise to reckless pouring of blood from mouth and nose”. Although they may end up prescribing the same thing, the second diagnosis truly demonstrates what Traditional Chinese Medicine is about, maintaining the harmony between organs and keeping the vital energy flowing. I am a fan of acupuncture and it has helped me improve my lifestyle, but what other “cures” are being administered in TCM?

The “Cure”

Along with benign practices such as acupuncture, massages and dietary therapy, there are also remedies that rely heavily on animal parts. These herbal remedies or medicinal remedies (herbal does tend to suggest that these remedies are fully plant based) may contain a range of bizarre animal parts such as scorpion claws, deer antlers, rhino horn or even bear bile. I am only naming a few here, the list however is endless, each claiming to “cure” or balance out the disharmony in the body. Bear Bile, the secretion produced by the bear’s liver and stored in the gallbladder is used in TCM since the Tang Dynasty 659 AD. The Bear Bile’s active compound is called Ursodeoxycholic acid and is claimed to have anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial. Recently, it has gained worldwide recognition for it being put on an official list of remedies for COVID-19 by the National Health Commission of China (Check out the TCM medicine Tan Re Qing). Due to its alleged benefits, the trade of this ingredient in TCM is estimated to be worth USD 2 Billion and over 12,000 bears are held captive around the world, mainly in South East Asia and China. As a KG of bile can fetch prices up to USD 24,000, this trade has caused many to resort to capturing and imprisoning wild Sun bears and Moon bears, leading to the Sun bear and the Moon bears inclusion on the list of vulnerable and threatened animals.

Free the Bears

As Moon Bears and Sun Bears across Asia wake up to their grim reality, consisting of imprisonment in coffin-sized cages, unable to move and with unsterile catheters inserted directly into their gallbladders as to milk them dry of their bile, we should voice our concern and try to find alternative solutions. Let’s face it, TCM is not going away any time soon and has actually seen a revival recently.  With the life expectancy of a Bile Bear being only 5 years as opposed to the 35 years in the wild, we may even see the demise of these bears before we can make any significant change to cultural behaviors. Promising news is coming out on a regular basis, with advances in the production of the active compound via synthetic means. This synthetic substitute is already being used in western medicine and should be implemented in TCM before it’s too late. If you would like to support this cause, please do take a look at an organization called Free the Bears that works in diverting captured bears from the trade in various countries such as Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Do not let the smallest of the bear (Sun bear) species suffer any longer!

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