In China, thousands of bears are imprisoned for their gallbladders.  Many spend their entire lives crammed in tiny cages, their torsos regularly tapped for bile, a common ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine.  After more than a decade of activism against this cruelty, a Chinese pharmaceutical company has developed a synthetic alternative that many hope will end bile farming.

The synthetic alternative, developed by KaiBao Pharmaceuticals, would transform chicken bile to a substance chemically similar to bear bile.  Though not an ideal alternative, KaiBao suggested that bile would be sourced from already-farmed poultry.  Jill Robinson, head of Animals Asia, a group heading the fight against bear bile farming, explained their perspective to the Guardian:

“This remains an ethical dilemma and the debate surrounding the use of all animal products continues and remains entirely worthwhile, [but] from the point of view of ending bear bile farming, and drastically reducing suffering of animals caged and mutilated for anything up to 30 years of their lives, this is a huge step.”

But ending bear bile farming may require more than developing synthetic alternatives.  The trick will be to convince practitioners and the public that synthetics are as good as the real thing.  In traditional Chinese medicine, bear bile is prescribed for a number of ailments – from hemorrhoids to sprains – but clinical studies have only found it’s effective in treating a few liver diseases and gall stones.

Synthetic and herbal alternatives have been available for some time – a synthetic version of the active ingredient in bear bile, ursodeoxycholic acid, was developed in the US as early as 1983.  But patients put a premium on ‘natural’ bear bile.  Farmed bear bile is preferred over synthetic versions, and wild-sourced bile, from wild bears slaughtered for the gallbladders, is the most highly prized.

Ironically, bile farming started in a misguided attempt to save wild bear populations.  Bears were hunted for their gallbladders, decimating bear populations in China.  Farmed bile was supposed to drive down prices and deter poachers, but the market has stayed strong and expanded.  Bear carcasses striped of their gallbladders can now be found in the US and Canada.  And in China, bile farms haven’t deterred poaching at all.  Instead of breeding in-house, bile farms repopulate their stock by stealing bear cubs from the wild, pushing a threatened species even closer to extinction.

The solution seems to lie in changing public opinion.  Animals Asia has been working toward this with a campaign called Healing Without Harm.  They believe that if they can convince probationers to stop prescribing bear bile, the public will follow.  And so far there’s hope, as Robinson explains:

“To date thousands of doctors have joined us in pledging never to use or prescribe bear bile.”