SEPTEMBER 2010: A bill is tabled at Korea’s National Assembly that may end bear bile farming forever.*

Like many aging bear farmers, the farmer who bred ‘Miracle the Bear’ seeks a way out of an industry with no future. He openly admits to selling bear parts to any paying party and expressed a strong desire for someone to relieve him of the burden of the bears he purchased in 1990, at a time when bear farming appeared lucrative.

Thus, Korea is left to solve the problem they initiated in 1980 when private sectors permitted the importation of wild animals such as bears, lions, wolves and tigers if buyers possessed adequately equipped facilities. Consequentially, the increase in bear importation jumped rapidly, particularly because bears are easy to breed and the common social belief among Korean people is that the bear gall is beneficial for human health.

The Beginning of a Tragic Trade…

From 1985, movements protecting bears in danger of extinction were aroused internationally. In accordance, the Korean government began to strictly regulate the official import and export of bears by banning the sale of bear blood, hide and gall. Due to this sudden decision, the bears imported from 1980 to 1985 which were bred in private sectors became of no use, and as farmers found themselves left with few options, many bears were neglected, or killed illegally. It is noteworthy that the government initially began selling these products in order to promote the farms’ income, going so far as to advertise the trade with a movie to encourage the bear breeding farms.

The government’s apparent negligence regarding policy for farmed bears and the ironic promotion of the bear breeding caused a massive movement of illegal butchery of bears to remove the gall bladders in most breeding farms, in some cases, due to desperation and in other cases, sheer greed.

The original purpose of bear breeding has long lost its legitmacy. The Ministry of environment, who holds responsibility for the bear breeding farm industry, and is another stakeholder in the issue, has been discussing potential plans of financial compensation for farmers, but no real remedy has been found to resolve the problem. To accommodate the issues faced by the mismanagement of policy, the ministry changed the minimum standards for the age limit of the bear butchery in 1999, which previously mandated that farmers may only slaughter bears over 25 years of age. In 2005, the Ministry of Environment revised the regulation and permitted the production and sale of goods made from the bears of over 10 years of age. The need to compensate for the previous gap in effective policy served as an unfortunate incentive for Korean farmers to harvest bile from live bears, as the bile is a costly sell, often sold for up to USD 10,000 despite the 54 recognised herbal alternatives available for Ursodeoxycholic acid-information that is not widely publicized within the Asian population.

Much like Farmer Lee, modern farm owners seek an escape from the trade, demanding compensation and aid. Farmer Lee stated that he feels victimized by circumstance, and he’s unclear about a solution. His voice, and that of those farmers who desire a ‘way out’ need to be considered as Korea strives to end this brutal trade, and provide a safe haven for all bears, regardless of breed.

Korea has been at pains in recent years to prove itself as a major actor on the world stage and is attempting to improve its access to world trade by ratifying a free trade agreement with the US and other countries, and only this year saw its foreign minister Ban Ki-Moon elected to the highest post at the United Nations.

In conjunction with these status-enhancers, Korea’s environment department recently declared a portion of Antarctica as an Endangered Species Protection Zone and boasted this action as another example of Korea’s credentials as an environmentally responsible global citizen.

The same department is responsible for regulating an estimated 76 bear farms around Korea* (Green Korea United, as published in JoongAng Daily, 10/28/09), endorsing an unethical and appalling trade for the exploitation of an animal whose protection is recognized by an international convention, to which Korea is signatory-the hypocrisy is astounding and incomprehensible.

Instead of taking initiative to create a solution for this urgent issue, Korea is turning a blind eye and allowing a dying practice to continue. The time to act is now.

Korea is in need of a sanctuary for bears of any breed, and the government is morally, financially and ethically obliged to support this endeavour, and it will have the support of numerous organizations and citizens who oppose the trade.

Bear bile farming has no place in modern medicine and no place in a country that calls itself a responsible and enlightened player in the global community.

An underrepresented issue for debate in the Korean community…

In August 2005, Green Korea United (GKU) commissioned Hangil Research & Consulting to conduct a public opinion poll. They randomly sampled 700 adult Koreans across the country by telephone. The summary results are as follows:

  • 95.6% of Koreans sampled have either no experience of buying bear bile, or are not willing to buy it
  • 74.9% of those sampled believe that bears should not be farmed because they are wild animals
  • 87.1% of those sampled strongly disagree with the practice of farming bears for bear bile
  • 73.4% of those sampled agree that the sale of bear products, including bear bile, should be banned
*Supporting Data provided by The World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and Green Korea United