Stalking the Moon Bears : Chengdu Diary Saving Moon Bears Near Chengdu
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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 npr.org during the week of May 19-23.

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

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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.

CRUELITY OF CRUSH CAGES

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

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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.

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

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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.

LUSH GROUNDS

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

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

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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.

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