Case of the moon bear

The Asiatic or Himalayan black bear fears extinction due to large-scale farming of the bear bile for 
traditional Chinese medicine, writes Lt-Gen Baljit Singh (retd)

ALMOST all faunal and floral extinctions are irrefutably linked to the excessive exploitation of the resource basket by the mankind. The alarm bells now toll loud and clear for the moon bear, which is being harvested for the traditional Chinese medicine far in excess of the natural recouping capacity of the species.

The moon bear is close to extinction in Iran,
The moon bear is close to extinction in Iran, 
Afghanistan and Pakistan


On a smooth and glistening jet black coat, the moon bear or the Himalayan black bear has a prominent cream-coloured or white V marking on its breast. The V is also comparable to a crescent moon, which gives the bear its name.

The moon bear, which inhabits the narrow strip from Iran in the West to Japan and Korea in the East, is close to extinction in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the Himalayas, it lives close to the upper limit of the tree line (10 to 12,000 ft above the sea level) though in winters, it descends to as low as 5,000 ft. Encounters are rare but invariably fatal because these solitary and nocturnal creatures are almost always taken by surprise as a man "stumbles" over a sleeping bear. 

In Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, China and Korea, the moon bear inhabits tropical rainforests, temperate broadleaf and dry forests. However, today the survival of all moon bears throughout their home-range is in jeopardy. Over the past two years, the Animals Asia Foundation has been at pains to arouse the conscience of the world through regular insertions in the Time magazine. One of the insertions carries an ink caricature of a moon bear, whose right eye is a mere empty socket in the skull and the left, shrivelled and half-shut. One tear-drop suspends from the left eye pouch. The bold, hand-written text goes on to reveal the indignities being inflicted on an estimated 10,000 similar moon bears, mostly on mainland China.

Similarly, appeared a full page landscape of "The Bear Cemetry at Animals Asia Bear Rescue Centre, Changdu, Sichuan Province, Chine," run by the International Fund for Animal Welfare. The inscription on one of the two tombstones in the foreground, firstly leads us to the identity of the ink caricatured moon bear as it reads chillingly:

"KIKI", The moon bear, RIP (Rest In Peace), Kiki finally succumbed to liver cancer, chronic gum and lip ulceration, necrosis, stomach bloat, hyperkeratosis, 7.5 cm gall stone, pus-infected bile, rotten right eye, partly rotten left eye, 15 cm ulcer on hind leg, diseased spleen, septicaemia, the remaining three inflictions and the date of death are out of focus." 

Kikiís obituary ends with what may be termed an appeal by all moon bears to the collective conscience of mankind globally, and in particular to those rearing bears to prepare the traditional Chinese medicine. "Sadly, these deaths were not due to natural causes. Each of these bears suffered from a litany of ailments caused by the human hand. This is the evidence of bear-bile farming. The sad reality is that bear bile, used in traditional Chinese medicine, can be easily replaced by many herbal and synthetic alternatives."

Laboratory tests have found that urodeoxycholic acid is simply no different from bear bile and is much cheaper than "milking"the bears for the bile. Once the moon bear goes extinct, mankind would have lost yet another marvel of faunal evolution. For instance, because of the nature of their food menu, their lips are protrusible and detached from the gums, they do not have incisors and the roof of their mouth is deeply concave which together make for strong suction and bellowing abilities. 

Termite are among their favourite food. The bear knocks down the termite-mound, then blows away the debris of the mound and finally placing the lips over the exposed termite tunnels, it suck in the delicacy. Honey is also their favourite food. With their non-skid pads and curved long claws of front limbs, they climb trees effortlessly. Having reached the honeycomb, they simply blow away the bees and then suck in the honey. The comb is seldom damaged and the bees often reclaim and restock it with honey. 

The brunos (brown bears) of Europe are known to knock down telephone poles. The passing by brunos tends to pick up the hum emanating from telephone wires, which resembles the drone of honey bees. So they clamber up but finding no honeycomb, they knock down the pole out of disgust. There are no reliable population estimates of the moon bear. Besides bear bile, they are also hunted extensively for meat. Their claws encased in silver foil are much sought-after good-luck charms. And all that the moon bear has is a life span of just about 25 years.