Bear Gallbladders to sell or not to sell

by Tony Nette

In recent years there has been a considerable amount of controversy associated with bear hunting. The use by hunters of this species is being questioned and challenged across North America and for the most part the individuals and organizations mounting the opposition, are opposed to the consumptive use of wildlife in general. Hunting in spring (not currently permitted in N.S.) baiting, hounding (again not permitted in N.S.) and the sale of parts are the major points of controversy. Each of these subjects are very complex and a full understanding of the background, animal behaviour, and the biology and management of bears is necessary to have a proper understanding of the issue. The purpose of this article is to provide information on which to base an informed opinion.

Metabolically speaking, bears are unique animals. They are the only mammals that produce significant amounts of the bile tauro ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA). Records indicate that bear bile has been used in traditional Chinese medicine since as early as 659 A.D. Its uses include treatment for intestinal, liver and cardiac illnesses, parasite and bacterial infections. It is used as anti-allergenic, anti-spasmodic, tranquilizers, painkillers, poison antidotes, antihypertensive and anti-coughing agents. It is used to treat cancers, skin rashes, burns and fevers, to prevent swelling, etc. In summary, from head aches to hemorrhoides. But, contrary to what you may have heard, not as an aphrodisiac.

Japanese scientists succeeded in chemically synthesizing bear bile in 1955. Today it is made synthetically from cow bile and about 200 tonnes consumed annually. About 10 tonnes are used in North America.

In western medicine it has been tested and proven effective in treatment of liver cirrhosis, to dissolve gallstones and on a trial basis to treat hyperlipemia. It (synthesized from cow bile) can be found in your local pharmacy under the brand name "Ursofalk". It is marketed in the U.S. under the brand name "Actigall"".

As with rice, mushrooms, pearls, and blueberries, even though there are domestically grown or synthesized products on the market and thriving businesses have developed, the natural or wild grown, will generally bring a higher price.

In the case of ursodeoxycholoic acid, there are three major sources; The wild, from free roaming bears, the synthesized from cow bile and most recently a farmed product tapped from live bears held in captivity. (Much the same as we recover estrogen from pregnant mares.)

In China there are currently almost 7,000 live bears in captivity that are tapped for bile.

The value of bear galls is a point of much debate with extremely high prices being quoted. Examples are: "Tiny quantities of bile from the gall of endangered Asiatic black bears can be worth up to 18 times the price of gold in the retail markets of Asia." And, "In South Korea a bear gallbladder could bring more than US$10,000 in 1994." Comparisons have often been made to the drug trade in values, method of transport and the type of people involved.

However, more recent investigations have stated that in China "real" whole bear gall bladders were found for sale in the range of from US$1 to US$9 per gram.

In Nova Scotia, fur buyers are offering about $5 to $8 per gram and hoping to get $15 to $20 per gram on resale. It is important to note that a gall of less than 10 grams is of very little value. A larger gall of 20 grams or larger, is worth more per gram. Galls of Asian bears are apparently larger and a weight of 60 grams is often used whereas a 25 to 30 gram gall in North America is considered above average. As well, the gall of an Asian bear, regardless of size, is worth considerably more than the gall of a North American black bear.

All Canadian jurisdictions and most US states report "stable or increasing" populations of black bears. The main concern is habitat loss and fragmentation in some American states. The annual legal harvest in Canada is about 25,000 while that of the U.S. is estimated at about 15,000.

In 1992, the N.A. Black Bear was listed on the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) Appendix II as "a look-a-like species" to assist with the enforcement and protection of endangered bear species including the Asiatic black bear.

It has been suggested that the CITES regulations are ineffective in that the illegal trade of parts has simply moved underground and the CITES permit has become a vehicle for laundering the parts of bears that have been taken illegally.

In 1994 the Chief of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Division of Law Enforcement stated that for every bear killed legally, another may be poached. Other sources (?) claim that for every bear taken legally, there are two taken illegally. There is no evidence to substantiate these statements. After further research, in September 1995, the Chief, Division of Law Enforcement of the US Fish and Wildlife Service stated, "...Analysis of the information gathered does not support the perception of widespread poaching of bears for viscera and parts. .....The unlawful sale of bear viscera is seen by the Division of Law Enforcement as a collateral activity that does not motivate the taking of the bear itself. ....Even though the sale of galls may be a violation of existing law, LE does not feel that the desire for bear viscera is driving any significant poaching activity."

The consensus at a Canadian bear management meeting in Feb. 1996, in Kenora Ontario, was that there was no significant bear poaching problem in Canada (B.C. & Yukon not in attendance). It is believed that most of the bear galls that are illegally sold in or illegally exported from North America, are from bears that were legally taken.

The only Canadian jurisdictions that currently allow the sale of bear parts are Northwest Territories, Quebec and Nova Scotia(see footnote). As well, 21 American states (including Maine and New Hampshire) allow the sale of bear parts. In Nova Scotia we have yet to find any evidence of poaching for the value of parts. Export records indicate that the galls of only about 30% of our legally harvested bears are being recovered and sold.

Nova Scotia's reasons for allowing the sale of bear parts are: 1) It is the philosophy of the Department, that when the taking of wildlife is permitted, the person doing so should be encouraged to recover and use as much of the animal as possible. 2) The black bear population in Nova Scotia is healthy and abundant and permitting the sale of parts has not resulted in the harvest exceeding a sustainable level. 3) The very stringent legislation associated with hunting bears and the sale and export of parts, provides an assurance that hunting and poaching will not detrimentally affect our bear population nor negatively affect proper management of bears in other jurisdictions. Currently, there is no indication that bears of this province are being taken illegally for the sale of their parts.

In response to the concern that allowing the sale of our bear galls may impact on endangered bear populations elsewhere in the world, new legislation has been introduced in 1996. Our regulations now state that any bear gall sold in or exported from N.S., must first be sealed with a numbered, permanently locking seal. By policy we will not seal the gall of a bear from another jurisdiction unless it is accompanied by documentation demonstrating that it was legally obtained and legally imported, and the jurisdiction of origin permits the sale of bear galls.

The requirement, as recommended by World Wildlife Fund, will better ensure that gallbladders of bears (of any species and from any jurisdiction) taken illegally, can not be laundered as having been legally exported from Nova Scotia. We now feel comfortable in continuing to allow the sale of galls to the economic benefit of our trappers, hunters, guides and furbuyers.

Although there have been large volumes of literature published on this subject during the past few years, not all sources present a complete and accurate review of the issue. It is the opinion of the author that the most reliable and factual information on the topic can be found in the following publications:

  1. Proceedings Of The International Symposium On The Trade Of Bear Parts For Medical Use. U. of Washington, Seattle, Washington USA. September 9-11, 1994 Published by Traffic USA World Wildlife Fund.
  2. Status, Management, and Commercialization of the American Black Bear (Ursus americanus) . Authored by Catherine McCracken, Debra A. Rose and Kurt A. Johnson. Published by Traffic USA World Wildlife Fund.

Note: In 1998 Quebec passed legislation prohibiting the sale of bear gall-bladders and bile as well possession is permitted only if the gall-bladder has not beeen removed from the animals carcass.

Tony Nette is Manager, Wildlife Resources, responsible for overseeing the management of moose, deer and bear for the province of Nova Scotia. He can be contacted at:
Wildlife Division
136 Exhibition Street
Kentville, N.S.
B4N 4E5