Andrea Hsu

Stalking the Moon Bears

All Things Considered host Melissa Block is back in the US for a while before she returns to China in May, but producer Andrea Hsu and photographer David Gilkey remain — working on multimedia pieces to be featured on during the week of May 19-23.

strange sign

Moon bears appear well-adapted to their environment today, but when they first arrived, many were fearful because they'd never before felt dirt or grass beneath their paws. Andrea Hsu, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Andrea Hsu, NPR

Chengdu is famous for pandas, but today we spent the day with another bear species: the Asiatic Black Bear, also known as moon bears, for the crescent-shaped markings on their chests.

For the past couple weeks, we've been hearing a lot about a group called Animals Asia and the work they've been doing to end bear farming — the practice of extracting bile from bears' gall bladders for use in traditional Chinese medicine. Bear farming is legal in China, though the government stopped issuing new licenses for it in 1994.

Bear bile is widely available in pharmacies in China, and not very expensive. I walked into a pharmacy on the way to dinner and found a small package of powdered bear bile selling for about $1.20. It's used to reduce fevers and treat problems with eyes, among other things.


crush cage

In the Moon Bear Rescue Center's education room, you can see a "crush"cage (so named because it has an inner metal shelf that presses down onto the bear) and full metal jackets used to confine bears, taken from bear farms in China. Andrea Hsu, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Andrea Hsu, NPR

Animals Asia's founder Jill Robinson got her first glimpse of bear farming in 1993, at a farm in southern China. She told us that what she saw that day — the tiny "crush" cages the bears were being kept in, the catheters permanently inserted into the bears for extraction of bile, the desperation she sensed from the bears — drove her to launch a crusade against the practice.

Jill Robinson

Animals Asia Founder Jill Robinson. Andrea Hsu, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Andrea Hsu, NPR

Now fifteen years later, the Moon Bear Rescue Center outside Chengdu is home to some 180 bears, taken from bear farms around China under an agreement Animals Asia reached with China's Ministry of Forestry and the China Wildlife Conservation Association, a government-sponsored group. Animals Asia compensates the farmers in return for shutting down the operations, though the group does not disclose how much compensation is given.


The grounds of the Moon Bear Rescue Center are incredibly lush, and the first bears we saw seemed happier and more active than any animal I've ever seen in captivity. One was rubbing its back on a wooden play structure, another was wallowing in a pool of water, and two others were sharing a hammock.

moon bear
Andrea Hsu, NPR
moon bear grave

The Animals Asia staff has had to bury 11 moon bears in the last two weeks. Most of the bears died of liver cancer. Andrea Hsu, NPR hide caption

toggle caption Andrea Hsu, NPR

However, Robinson later took us around to see the latest group of bears to be rescued. 28 bears were brought to the center on March 31, and in the two weeks since, 11 have died; most of them from liver cancer. Robinson says this is the sickest group of bears they've seen since they started receiving bears off farms in 2000.

She suspects that the bear farmers may have in fact sold off all the healthy bears, handing over only the ones that were no longer producing bile. While she's greatly troubled by the thought, she says she's still comforted knowing that the bears will live out their last days in a peaceful environment. Animals Asia estimates there are still some 7,000 bears being farmed for their bile in China, and another 4,000 in Vietnam.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Bear bile is a very ancient medicine that was used first by the Tang dynasty.

Before the method of farming bear was developed, killing them was the only way to get that valuable excrement.
Since overkilling, the number of bear rapidly declined; that made bear bile more expensive than gold. Some Asian small nations such as Japan found it difficult to get bear bile. In 1954, for the first time, the Japanese successfully synthesized the bear bile acid as an alternative to natural bear bile.

Actually, the history of farming bear for bile is not long. In 1983, North Korea invented a method of farming bear for bile that spreaded into China,. At that time, China had other fish to fry: various reforms, fighting poverty, combatting general ignorance and putting down extreme-leftists.

By 1989, China had issued its first Wild Animal Protection Law. It presented a compromised approach called "Strengthening Protection, reproduction or development."

Sichuan's Forestry Department Wildlife Conservation Director Deng Sui Xiang said, "the bear farming industry is a good development, because every year one captive bear gives us the equivalent of killing 40 wild bear"

In July 2000, the China Wildlife Conservation, the Sichuan Provincial Forestry Office and Animal Asia formally signed the bear rescue operation agreement. It's the first one that the Chinese government has made with a foreign animal welfare group.

The ultimate goal is to eliminate bear farming.

Sent by moss | 1:12 AM | 4-16-2008

This treatment is a horrible, cruel practice.

But animal confinement in the US is not much better. Millions of pigs, chickens and cows never see the outdoors their entire lives. Their excrement is a huge environmental problem. These practices should be banned asap.

Sent by Brian Nabors | 11:49 AM | 4-16-2008

I take all my found money and put it in a jar. I save it for one year. Every August I cash in the money and give it to an animal rescue. This year it will be to moon bears. I heard about them and thier plight, a year or two ago.

Last year I gave to the chimp sanctuary and elephant sanctuary. I gave $176.00 last year. I hope to give more this year. This way, in this economy, I am not taking from our budget, and still supporting these wothwhile causes.

May we soon realize our cruelty to other species, no matter how small, diminishies our own nobility. "Thank you" to all rescues for returning our humanity back to us.

Sent by Sugar | 11:27 AM | 4-22-2008

My daughter is doing a 3-minute speach on Moon Bears for her grade 5 oral exam. She is hoping to raise awareness of the bears amongst her classmates and possibly start a fundraiser through the school to help as much as she can. She has been very taken with these bears and now wants to help save them all.

Sent by M.Dean | 9:04 PM | 5-7-2008

I can't believe a person would sit back and watch a living thing suffer not just in confinement but with a catheter permanently attached causing an infection. More people need to help Jill by sending money or buying something from their website at

Sent by Jennifer | 11:54 AM | 5-24-2008


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