Why Moon Bears Need a Moment in the Sun

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Humans pose a variety of dangers to Asia's moon bears, but conservationists hope the tide is starting to turn. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Moon bears are waning in the wild, depleted by decades of hunting and habitat loss. But this ancient species — which ranges from Iran to Japan, and whose DNA suggests it's the oldest of all modern bears — often faces an even darker fate in captivity.

That's because of "bear farms," which keep thousands of moon bears in tiny cages to collect bile, a fat-digesting fluid found in many animals, including humans. Bear bile is used in traditional Chinese medicine, and after hunters decimated wild moon bears last century, scientists in North Korea found a way to extract bile from live ones.

This was supposed to take the heat off wild bears, and it quickly caught on in China — which had thousands of captive moon bears by the 1990s — as well as South Korea, Vietnam and other Asian countries. Due to deforestation and poaching, however, the wild decline didn't stop, and annual demand for bear bile in China actually grew. Now, on top of their lives and habitats, moon bears are losing their dignity, too.

Wildlife advocates have spent years rescuing bears and pushing for tougher laws, and some are even helping the species with rebranding. Moon bears lack the star power of other troubled animals like pandas, and when they do get attention, it's often in the grim context of bile farming, not their natural setting. For moon bears to reach panda-like prestige, they don't just need more pity; they need better publicity.

Fair or not, humans tend to care more about animals that seem relatable and charismatic. Being a mammal helps, but moon bears apparently need an extra bump. And science has shown that anthropomorphizing an animal — i.e., portraying it with human-like features and behavior — can help people feel empathy for it, thus encouraging us to be more emotionally invested in its well-being.

And that's where this friendly bear comes in:

Bandabi the moon bear
The 2018 Paralympic Winter Games will feature a moon bear as the official mascot. (Photo: PyeongChang 2018)

The 2018 Paralympic Winter Games will feature a moon bear as the official mascot. (Image: PyeongChang 2018)

Bear in mind

This is "Bandabi," an anthropomorphic moon bear. (Formally known as the Asiatic black bear, the moon bear's common name comes from a crescent-shaped patch of white fur on its chest.) Bandabi was unveiled in 2016 as the official mascot of the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, along with the mascot of the 2018 Olympic Winter Games, a white tiger named "Soohorang."

Despite the plight of its species, Bandabi is unlikely to become an activist. It was chosen as mascot because bears represent "strong will and courage" in Korea, according to the PyeongChang 2018 organizing committee, and because Asiatic black bears are the symbolic animal of Gangwon Province, which includes PyeongChang. But by giving a stylized face to all the moon bears suffering out of sight, even if it doesn't officially represent them, Bandabi could be more powerful than it seems.

"With Bandabi as a mascot in South Korea, there is a cute factor in exposing cruelty," said Jill Robinson, founder and CEO of Hong Kong-based charity Animals Asia, in a 2016 statement. "If you can get people to see animals as more than a resource, then they will question the cruel treatment of farmed bears. We believe Bandabi will have an impact across Asia and the world, and remind people during the Winter Olympics of the many bears that are still suffering and caged."

Ura's World book cover
The cover of the 2009 children's book 'Ura's World.'. (Photo: John Walker/moonbears.org)

Bandabi is part of a growing effort to rebrand moon bears, joining the likes of Ura, a puckish cub who has starred in two Korean children's books, "Ura's World" and "Ura's Dream." Both books convey "a subtle message for young children about the importance of respecting animals and the environment," according to moonbears.org, one of several charities to which proceeds from the books are donated.

Characters like Ura and Bandabi don't necessarily need to bring up bear farming to work against it. Just by portraying their species in a positive light — as sentient, relatable animals who play the hand they're dealt — they help foster a fuller appreciation of moon bears that invites us to stand in their shoes.

Asiatic black bear, aka moon bear
The name 'moon bear' comes from a white crescent-shaped marking on the species' chest. (Photo: Shutterstock)

A bear market

Bear farming is illegal in South Korea and Vietnam, but lax enforcement has let the practice persist in both countries, each of which may have more than 1,000 bears on bile farms. And it's still legal in China, where dozens of farms hold an estimated 10,000 moon bears, according to Animals Asia, along with smaller numbers of other species like sun bears and brown bears. Despite regulations meant to improve living conditions, some Chinese bile farms still use small cages and condemned extraction methods such as metal jackets or catheter implants.

"Bears on bile farms are subjected to painful procedures and are denied everything that is natural to them," explains a 2008 report by Michigan State University's Animal Legal and Historical Center. "On most farms, bears are kept in cages that are about 2.5 feet x 4.2 feet x 6.5 feet, which is so small that these 110 to 260 pound bears cannot turn around or sit up completely." Whether bile is collected via catheter or the "open drip" method, bears often suffer infections, muscle atrophy and cage injuries.

"Many bears have been found with scars from cages pressing into their bodies," the report adds, "and some have head wounds and broken teeth from banging and biting at the bars in a feeble attempt to free themselves."

It's worth noting that, unlike rhino horn and many other wildlife products touted by traditional Chinese medicine, bear bile actually does have medicinal value. It has been used for thousands of years to treat a wide range of ailments, and modern science has verified at least some of those uses, such as treating liver and gallbladder conditions or reducing inflammation. But rather than justifying the cruelty of bear farming, the goal of such research is to bypass bears altogether.

bear bile farm in China
Moon bears sit in their cages at a bile farm in southeast China's Fujian province. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

The active ingredient in bear bile, ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), is more abundant in bears than in any other mammal. Scientists learned to synthesize UDCA decades ago, and synthetic versions are now widely used to dissolve gallstones in humans. Some Chinese herbs mimic certain effects of UDCA, as do plants in the genus Coptis. And Kaibo Pharmaceuticals, a major bear-bile supplier in China, is developing a new alternative using poultry bile and "biotransformation technology."

Various bear-bile substitutes are already used in China, but their adoption has reportedly been stunted by public doubts about their efficacy. Many traditional doctors still prescribe actual bear bile over other options, and critics of the bear-farming industry say this is a key part of reducing demand.

"There are more than 50 herbal [and] legal alternatives that we would also strongly encourage practitioners and retailers to recommend to consumers," Chris Shepherd of the conservation group Traffic told the Guardian in 2015. "If practitioners move toward these alternatives, consumers would follow."

moon bears
Two moon bear cubs play in a tree at Khao Yai National Park in Thailand. (Photo: Tontan Travel/Flickr)

The good news bears

In the meantime, ursine ambassadors like Bandabi and Ura can play an important role. As bear farming grows increasingly taboo, and as science renders bear bile obsolete (for everyone except bears), they provide us with protagonists in a new, hopefully happier chapter of moon bear history.

"Like the Paralympians who will compete at PyeongChang 2018, bears are strong, courageous and determined creatures who make the most of their surroundings," said Sir Philip Craven, president of the International Paralympic Committtee, in 2016. "Bears are also seen as friendly and cuddly, and I am excited to see how Bandabi interacts with the public between now and the Games."

As researchers noted in a 2013 study, anthropomorphism isn't always good for wildlife. It may encourage people to acquire wild animals as pets, for example, like what happened to clownfish around Vanuatu after "Finding Nemo" was released in 2003. It also tends to focus on big, social or charismatic species, potentially reinforcing our relative indifference toward things like insects or plants.

Still, we already have a rich history of anthropomorphizing bears, whose unsuitability as pets is more immediately obvious than with some animals. And considering the misery of many captive moon bears, it's high time more people see the species in a different light. As conservation psychologist John Fraser told Deutsche Welle in 2014, anthropomorphic animals can be a useful shortcut to empathy.

"Anthropomorphism is a path to knowledge," Fraser said. "Empathy is essential to promoting concern for animals and species, and if projecting our human perceptual world on those beings helps people on that learning path, it's important."