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Milking the Moon Bears: Bear Farming in South Korea

By Carly Nugent 

  You’ve probably seen the bus stop billboards around Seoul – big furry faces and wide, brown eyes. But apart from such advertising on behalf of groups like Green Korea, the issue of bear farming in this country receives little publicity. It is rarely discussed among the Korean community, and most expats are surprised to learn that the slaughter of bears even occurs here. Even the minister for environment was recently rumoured to have said, in response to questioning about bear farming, ‘is that still going on?’

  It is going on, and it is legal. There are an estimated 1600 bears on 110 farms, most of them around Daegu – South Korea’s medicinal capital. Bears are farmed for their gall bladders and bile – used in traditional Asian medicine to cure numerous ailments such as fever, liver disease, poor eyesight, gallstones and even heart disease. While it is true that the extract from bear bile – ursodeoxycholic acid or UDCA – has proven to be an effective treatment for such illnesses, there are at least 54 readily available herbal alternatives. Herbal medicine is just as effective as bear products, not to mention cheaper and safer. Draining bears for their bile can be a risky process, especially if, as often happens due to unsanitary conditions, the bears are sick or the draining site is infected. For consumers seeking to get well, taking bear bile could have the opposite effect.

  The selling of bear products is a lucrative trade – which could explain the reluctance of bear farmers to recognise the benefits of alternative medicine. A kilogram of bear bile can fetch up to USD $500, while a single gall bladder can be worth USD $10,000. Statistics indicate that 38% of oriental medicine shops in Korea carry these products – discreetly – in the form of pills, plaster or raw bear bile. Another common practice is the choosing of your own bear, directly from a farm, for slaughter.

  While slaughtering bears for medicine is legal in Korea, milking them for bile is not. Animal rights groups, however, believe that a lack of government regulation or inspection of bear farms allows this practice to happen frequently. The process of milking a bear for its bile requires the insertion of a catheter into its gall bladder. When the bear is not being milked the catheter is removed and the site is covered by a steel lock and plate, designed to prevent tampering by the bear. This is not only uncomfortable for the animal, but can cause serious infection. Reports of the general treatment of farmed bears are also not positive. Bears are often kept in small, dog-sized cages, or sometimes crammed into larger cages with up to ten other bears. Their teeth are filed, and they are fed pig slop – far removed from their usual diet of vegetables and insects. Because of their living conditions bears are unable to hibernate, a fundamental instinct that, when repressed, results in depressive behaviour such as turning in circles, chewing the bars of cages, and self-harm. While the legal age for the slaughter of bears has recently been reduced to 10 years old from 24 years old, farmers are pushing for it to be lowered further, and there is no regulation on how bears are killed. Animal rights groups believe slaughtering practices, as a result, are often inhumane.

   The majority of farmed bears (85.3%) are Asiatic Black Bears – also known as Moon Bears due to the crescent moon shaped pattern on their chests. Moon Bears are native to Korea, and are hailed as Korean National Monument Number 329. Since 1982 Moon Bears have been a protected species, and legend has it that Korea’s first king, Tan-gun, was born to a bear. Korea’s respect for its bears, however, is at odds with its penchant for farming them. Today, there are only about 11 bears left in the Korean wild as part of Jirisan National Park’s Moon Bear restoration work, and even these bears face the threat of poaching. Even more contradictory was the Korean government’s decision to join CITES (The Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora) in 1993. CITES bans the international trade of bear parts, however it does not regulate domestic trade. As a result, Korea can no longer import bears from countries such as North America, nor can it export bear products. The domestic market, however, remains active. Joining CITES has also done nothing to discourage tourists from Korea travelling to China and Vietnam to purchase bear products. According to Education for Nature Vietnam (ENV), Koreans make up the majority of visitors on organized tours to bear farms in China and Vietnam. Bear farming in Vietnam is illegal – however an estimated 700 tourists visit undercover farms every week. Smuggling bear parts to Korea from Vietnam is a violation of the CITES agreement, but little is being done to stop this from happening.

   The Union of Korean Bear Farms is currently pushing for further deregulation of bear farming practices. The Union Chairman Kim Mu-ung – whose name in Chinese ironically means ‘no bear’ – farms over 200 bears. He has petitioned the Korean government to legalize the sale of bear meat, and is rumoured to be planning the opening of a bear theme park. Kim argues that deregulation of bear farming will allow Korean farms to compete with China, discouraging the purchase of foreign products and improving local trade. Such an argument, however, does not address the treatment of the bears themselves – seeing them as valuable only for their commercial use. It has also been argued that the farming of bears protects the animals in the wild – however, this does not take into account the fact that poachers are selling wild bears to farms. 

  There are a number of groups that are working towards the protection of Korea’s farmed bears. Moonbears.org is a non-profit organization that was founded by Gina Moon in 2007. The Moonbears.org website has a link to a petition against bear farming, as well as up to date information about the issue. Moonbears.org is working towards the development of a bear sanctuary, in conjunction with the Animals Asia Foundation (AAF) – a Hong Kong based animal welfare charity founded by Jill Robinson in 1998. John Walker, a supporter of Moonbears.org, recently published a children’s book about the plight of Korean Moon Bears. The book – ‘Ura’s World’ – is set in South Korea and aims to remind readers of the importance of protecting flora and fauna.

  Moonbears.org works with Green Korea United – an NGO focused on the preservation of Korea’s natural environment. Green Korea, apart from being responsible for Seoul’s Moon Bear bus stops, has investigated numerous pharmaceutical markets in Korea to expose the illegal international trade of bear parts. Green Korea has called on the minister for environment to restore the population and preservation of bears in the wild. They also meet with WSPA (World Society for the Protection of Animals) each year. WSPA are an international organization working to eliminate the illegal trade of bear parts. WSPA believes that the farming of bears is cruel, unnecessary and must end, and they are working with Asian governments as well as practitioners of traditional medicine to make this happen. They have had some success elsewhere in Asia – Vietnam committed to phase out bear farming in 2005 – and their goal is to achieve similar results in Korea.

   Although there are reports that the market for bear gall is rising in Korea, there are indications that a lot of farmers would be more than happy to give up their trade. While around 30 farms house fifty or more bears, a 2007 survey carried out by Moonbears.org indicates that the majority of bear farms are small, backyard operations with less than 4 animals. The cost of keeping so few bears in most cases outweighs the profits, and many farmers see the animals as a burden rather than a financial asset. The question is – how much resistance would the closing down of the bear farming industry really face? If groups like Moonbears.org are well supported and continue to petition the Korean government, it seems a real possibility that the farming of this protected and revered species could soon be a practice of the past.

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