A Little Medicine Shop of Horrors for Endangered Sun Bears

A new survey finds that nearly half of Malaysia’s traditional medicine stores illegally sell bear bile products—including whole gall bladders.

Sun bear. (Photo: Clemens Bilan/Getty Images)

Jun 4, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of bears are dying every year to feed Malaysia’s appetite for traditional medicine made from their bile or gallbladders.

Even though Malaysia banned such trade decades ago—followed by a tougher wildlife-protection law that came into force in 2010—the sale of bear products remains rampant. A report issued this week by TRAFFIC, the international wildlife trade monitoring network, found bear gallbladders and medicinal products for sale in 48 percent of Malaysia’s traditional medicine shops. The products and organs, TRAFFIC found, were sourced not just from Malaysia’s native sun bears but from Asiatic black bears from China, Thailand, Russia, Vietnam, and other countries.

Bear bile is used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a number of conditions, even though it has no real medicinal value. Malaysia has a large population of people of Chinese descent who continue to make the concoctions.

Chris Shepherd, regional director for TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia, said the report “clearly demonstrates the bear bile trade is ongoing, widespread, and in many cases, being carried out with little obvious fear of the law.” Many of the stores surveyed said they knew the products were illegal but continued to sell them anyway.

The survey found a total of 298 whole gallbladders for sale; more than 60 percent of them were said to be sourced from wild sun bears. Shepherd called this “alarming” and said, “If this is an indication of the level of poaching of Malaysia’s sun bear, this species could be far more threatened here than we suspected.”

Others expressed fear for the future of the species.

“I believe the sales of bear parts have caused the local extinction of many small sun bear populations in Southeast Asia,” said Wong Siew Te, CEO and founder of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre. “If the sale continues, recovery of the wild population is virtually impossible.” He said sun bears reproduce very slowly and also face the threat of habitat destruction, which has separated their remaining populations from each other.

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Despite the report’s bleak portrait, Shepherd said progress is being made. TRAFFIC notified Malaysian authorities of the illegal sales and is working with the Federation of Chinese Physicians and the Medicine Dealers Association of Malaysia to shut down the trade.

This week, in conjunction with the release of the report, the medicine dealers association warned its 4,000 members to stop selling bear bile products. “We do not condone the use of bear bile, gallbladders, or derivative products,” physicians federation Secretary-General Kerk Ee Chan said at a press conference.

Not all of Malaysia’s traditional Chinese medicine shops belong to the federation, but Shepherd said proposed legislation could soon make membership mandatory for all dealers.

“With the federation itself playing a strong role in deterring the use of bear bile amongst its own members and its broad consumer base, I firmly believe we have an excellent opportunity to greatly reduce this illegal trade and to ensure we do not lose sun bears in Malaysia,” he said.

TRAFFIC has called for additional monitoring of the trade, additional protection for sun bears in the wild, and improved enforcement and collaboration among wildlife officials, pharmaceutical enforcement units, and the city council law enforcement agencies where local medicine shops are located.

Wong also called for Malaysia to step up enforcement of its existing laws. “This report shows the enforcement of wildlife laws is generally weak in this country,” he said. “This is the time for the authority and the medicine group to seriously do something to prevent these sales. The remaining wild sun bear populations exist in fragmented landscapes and cannot withstand any level of human-related mortality.”