Threatened sun bears could suffer from increased poaching due to the Chinese government’s touting of bear bile treatment for coronavirus, conservation charities have warned.
In a list of recommended treatments for Covid-19 published last month, China’s National Health Commission promoted injections of a “traditional medicine” containing bear bile.
An estimated 12,000 bears are held in captivity on farms in China and Vietnam, where they are “milked” for the digestive fluid.
But experts said China’s official approval of the so-called medicine could influence “desperate” consumers in Malaysia, potentially leading to an increase in sun bear poaching there.
Monitor, a conservation society dedicated to lesser-known species, said the bear, which is found in tropical forests across Southeast Asia, was already threatened with extinction.
“Desperate consumers may easily be swayed,” Monitor spokesperson Loretta Shepherd told Free Malaysia Today (FMT). “There is a very real chance that our sun bears will be at increased risk. We could see an increase in the use of bear bile medicine and a rise in the poaching of sun bears.”
According to a study last year by Traffic, an organisation tackling the international wildlife trade, illegal trade in bear parts in Malaysia had increased since 2015.
It reported bear-based medicines were on offer in more than two-thirds of traditional Chinese medicine shops in the country.
Andrew Sebastian, head of the Malaysian Ecotourism and Conservation Society, told FMT China’s message would increase the demand for bear bile in China itself as well as Malaysia.
Bear bile is an ingredient of “tan re qing”, injections of which are among recommended treatments for severe and critical coronavirus patients in a plan published three weeks ago, circulated by Chinese state media.
Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners typically use tan re qing to treat bronchitis but Clifford Steer, a professor at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, who has studied the subject, said he had seen no evidence bear bile is an effective treatment for coronavirus, National Geographic reported.
But, he said, it may alleviate Covid-19 symptoms because of its anti-inflammatory properties and ability to calm immune responses.
In February, the Chinese government banned the eating and transport for eating of wild animals as coronavirus was spreading, but it did not cover use of wildlife products in Chinese medicine or as ornamental items.