China's caged bears in long battle for freedom

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SINGAPORE, Oct 22 (Reuters) Smuggled overseas from China's far-flung bear farms, bear bile eye drops and remedies can be bought at traditional Chinese medicine shops the world over.

The amber-brown elixir is difficult but not impossible to procure say TCM storekeepers in Singapore's downtown Chinatown, despite bear bile being banned outside China to protect the endangered Asiatic black bears whose gall bladders store it.

Stopping the trade that experts fear could drive endangered bears to extinction means stopping demand for the ''liquid gold'' so prized as a traditional cure that it has fetched prices higher than gold, ounce-for-ounce, experts say.

''We need to stop buying,'' said Grace Gabriel, Asia Regional Director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, (IFAW).

''If we don't buy, they don't die''.

Even with a new state-approved ''free drip'' method of extracting bile, China's incarcerated bears lead miserable, pain-wracked lives, said campaigner Jill Robinson, who says she won't rest until the 7,000 bears kept on China's farms are free.

''(It's) undeniably cruel, undeniably wrong, from start to finish,'' said Robinson, head of Animals Asia, at her bear rescue centre in southwest Sichuan Province, the home of China's iconic panda, which draw hordes of tourists each year.

''I mean no one's going to die from lack of bear bile''.

Listed as vulnerable by the World Conservation Union since 1979, the bear's rarity does not protect them from the estimated 8 billion yuan (US1 billion dollars) domestic traditional Chinese medicine market which does not care about ''bunnyhuggers'' protests about cruelty, she said.

''(The authorities) know the death rate on their farms, they know the suffering it causes, they see the infections and cuts on those bears bodies''.

''But still they let it continue because they're driven by the dollar rather than by a genuine desire to save lives,'' she added as she watched two rescued bears tussle on top of a log while others cooled off in a pool at the rescue centre.

BATTERY HEN BEARS Covert photos and videos of the large, 400-pound black bears lying immobilised in tiny cages with stainless steel catheters protruding from their bellies provoked an international outcry when first leaked to the press in the 1990s.

MORE REUTERS SV KN1224

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