Products Made from Bear Bile
In Lisa See’s novel Flower Net, attorney-detective team David Stark and Liu Hulan surmise that the murders they are investigating are related to Chinese organized crime—more specifically, to a triad called the Rising Phoenix. They get a break in their case when they arrest a Rising Phoenix courier for smuggling contraband into the United States. This illegal substance is highly sought after and worth a great deal of money on the black market.
Is it heroin? No. This substance is more valuable than heroin: it is bear bile. According to a character in See’s novel, “Dried bear bile salts sell for anywhere between two hundred and fifty to seven hundred dollars a gram compared to three hundred dollars for heroin” (178).
Bear bile, I learned, is a substance that has long been used in Chinese medicine. According to website of The Journal of Chinese Medicine, bear bile has
“traditionally been used in Chinese medicine to, i. clear heat from the Heart and Liver and stop spasms (for example childhood convulsions, epilepsy, eclampsia, delirium following extensive burning etc.); ii. clear heat and resolve toxicity (for example sores, carbuncles etc.); iii. clear and drain Liver heat and benefit the eyes (for example severely red, painful and swollen eyes etc.); iv. clear heat and eliminate childhood nutritional impairment.”
Westerners who scoff at traditional Chinese medicine might be interested to know that modern, western researchers have found that bear bile “contains the greatest amounts of ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA) of any species of mammal. UDCA is known to modify cholesterol absorption and excretion and is used in the treatment of gall stones, biliary cirrhosis, and liver cancers.” (Journal of Chinese Medicine.)
In other words, the bile has proven medical value. Unfortunately, the extracting the bile from bears causes them enormous pain. Furthermore, the bears are kept in tiny cages their entire lives. These cages are so small the bears can never even stand or sit up, much less move around. To put it simply: the process of obtaining bear bile is extraordinarily cruel to the animals. Because of the cruelty of the practice and because there are now synthetic forms of ursodeoxycholic acid available, there is a growing movement in China to stop the practice, as the New York Times reported about a year ago:
Mu Chen/European Pressphoto Agency
Caged bears awaiting bile extraction
Importing and exporting the bile is already illegal. This of course does not stop people who are motivated by the profits of trade.
Although the traffic in bear bile makes for a riveting detective novel, the practice is sickening. I hope the burgeoning animal rights movement in China gains momentum and puts an end to this practice soon.
“Asiatic Black Bear. Use in Traditional Medicine.” website of the Journal of Chinese Medicine. http://www.jcm.co.uk/endangered-species-campaign/asiatic-black-bear/use-in-traditional-medicine/
Jacobs, Andrew. “Folk Remedy Extracted From Captive Bears Stirs Furor in China.” New York Times. May 21, 2013
See, Lisa. Flower Net. New York: Random House, 2008.