04/16/2013 08:19 EDT | Updated 06/16/2013 05:12 EDT

Traditional Chinese Medicine: Taking A BIG Toll On Wildlife

Asiatic Bears are farmed for their bile juice -- a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) -- alleged to fight fever, cleanse the liver, and improve vision. There is no scientific evidence to substantiate these claims. But the bears are not the only victims of such inhumane practice, more than 1800 animals are used in TCM drugs.

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Asiatic black or Moon bear (Ursus thibetanus) Utyos Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, Kutuzovka Village, Russian Far East

"The caged bears with an open wound cut in their stomach for the daily torture of bile extraction woke me up to the shocking brutality to more than 10,000 black bears in China. I could not believe some people in China could be so shamelessly insensitive to the suffering of an animal species."

Candid words from Dr. Peter Li, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Houston --Downtown, as he describes his own native country in an email interview with me. He has witnessed the plight of the Asiatic Bears that were subjected to the most ruthless bear farming practices, at a rehab center in China. These animals are farmed for their bile juice -- a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) -- alleged to fight fever, cleanse the liver, and improve vision.

To be sure, there is no scientific evidence to substantiate these claims. According to Dr. Li, TCM is based on superstitions and myths fueled by the pharmaceutical industry that has been marketing aggressively by exaggerating the medicinal effects in order to build a positive image.

"There is no scientific basis of the claim that tiger penis (or testicles), seal penis, deer penis, or elephant penis have aphrodisiac capacity. Yet, the effectiveness of Viagra has been demonstrated in clinical trials and in use. The myth of tiger penis being a powerful manhood enhancer has been sustained by the TCM believers. It is only understandable that some desperate impotent males would choose to believe in anything that potentially work."

Perhaps the record profits being racked up by the industry could explain why TCM is so popular. According to China Science News Mr. Wang Guoqiang, Director of China's State Traditional Chinese Medicine Administration said, in 2012 China's TCM was a whopping $60billion (a 410 billion yuan) industry. To quell their insatiable quest for material wealth and gain status-quo the farmers ignore the insurmountable physical and emotional torture these bears have to endure.

In his research paper "Rehabilitating Rescued Chinese Farm Bears," Dr. Li exposes the most atrocious bear farming practices. The bears are subjected to a crude surgical procedure, often by untrained people who insert a catheter or create an artificial fistula in the abdomen, as bile juice is "an alleged cure-all ingredient in TCM." Farm bears tolerate the pain as the fluid is milked out of an open wound up to six times a day.

Even more appalling are the wounds that are intentionally inflicted by the owner to render the bears defenseless. For instance to make bile extraction easier, the farmers resort to cruel practices such as "chopping off the top portion of the bears' front paw fingers or sawing down to the gum level of the bears' front canine."

And just in case the bears have not been traumatized enough, the poor animals are deprived of even the basic necessities of life - adequate food, water, and space. Overall they're exposed to the worst possible environment after robbing them of their rich wilderness. In this graphic undercover BBC video, a bear farmer defends the practice of bile extraction, claiming it to be for human welfare.

Asiatic bears are not the only victims of such inhumane practice, more than 1800 animals are used in TCM drugs. Rhino horns are one of the most coveted wildlife parts, as they are alleged to have aphrodisiac properties. In this report, 15-day old Rhino awaits to be fed by humans, after it was orphaned recently. It's 17-year-old mother who was trans-located to India's Manas National Park in 2012, was found dead with her horn and claws missing on April 3rd. She was the fourth rhino in the park slaughtered by poachers over just two years and the 16th in the Assam region, (India) according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

List and captions courtesy of Vetstreet

Blog continues after slideshow

Photo gallery Surprising Animals That May Go Extinct See Gallery

Meantime, such unsustainable TCM practices and illegal trading is taking its toll on the wildlife, pushing many a species to the brink of extinction. This is of particular significance to the global community now more than ever before, as China continues to obliterate its own native and endemic species and turns to the global commons to exploit more. This is leading to extinction of species that lived on this planet for millions of years. For instance, the Yangtze River dolphin, a species that had lived in the waters of central China for more than 20 million years became extinct in 2006. According to a report entitled China Red Data Book of Endangered Animals: Mammalia, of the 400 endangered mammals in the world, 133 of them are in China, and 398 species of vertebrates are threatened by increased human activities.

So amid the fifth mass extinction crisis currently underway, the daunting question is, are the ancient TCM practices sustainable for a planet that houses more than seven billion humans? "Absolutely not" asserts Dr. Li, although he is not too optimistic either about any immediate solutions to dispel the ancient beliefs that are so deep-rooted within the Chinese culture and psyche.

"TCM practitioners and the China TCM Association have been strong defenders of TCM effectiveness. Typically in China, a patient can be treated by Western medicine doctors and a TCM doctor at the same time. When he is cured, both the Western medicine and TCM would claim credits, thus giving the public the impression that both are indispensable cures."

It doesn't help either when a progressive country like Canada with a good track record on animal welfare launches a massive marketing campaign in China to sell seal meat and the most treasured seal oil that Chinese traders crave for. Understandably, Dr. Li's response to Canada's influence over wildlife poaching in China is quite somber, as Canada's own reputation has been tarnished in China over the highly controversial seal hunting operation. He says, since 2010 hundreds of thousands of Chinese protested Canadian intention to market seal meat to China, in addition to letters and petitions that were sent to the Canadian Embassy in Beijing urging the ambassador to tell Ottawa that China didn't need the bloody seal products.

"I am sorry to say that Canadian government is morally inadequate in this regard because Ottawa is stubbornly supporting seal slaughter, a business that benefits the white sealers in the name of protecting the indigenous people's livelihood. What I fear is that Canadian government may use the FIPA opportunity to push for more seal product trade with China. Frankly, Ottawa as a defender of animal protection is suspect."

My next blog will focus on the cultural origins of such profound disdain for animals in China.

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