A Hong Kong-based animal welfare group said it will save 130 bears from a mainland bile extraction farm, its largest rescue so far, in a bid to end a business that has sparked outrage over animal cruelty amid growing opposition.
Animals Asia says as many as 10,000 bears are held in captivity in China and used for bile extraction, often under poor conditions that cause long-term physical and psychological suffering.
The bile, taken repeatedly from incisions in the bears' gall bladders, is used in some Chinese medicines that claim to cure eye and liver ailments.
Animals Asia reached a deal with state-owned Flower World to take over its bear bile farm in Nanning, capital of Guangxi, and convert it into a sanctuary for the Asiatic black bears, known as moon bears for a white crescent marking on their chests.
The deal was agreed to after company executives said they were losing money on the venture and acknowledged it was time for change.
"Particularly in the last two years, there has been a lot of public discussion about the practice of extracting bear bile from live bears," Flower World general manager Yan Shaohong said yesterday.
"Most people oppose it, so we consider prospects for the bear bile business will be less and less optimistic."
The rescue is set to begin in May and the company stopped extracting bile from the bears two years ago.
Animals Asia said it has put aside US$5 million (HK$39 million) over the next three years to construct and run the sanctuary and retrain staff to care for the bears. Many had been used for their bile, while others had been held for breeding.
In 2011, fury among Chinese internet users erupted after news that a Chinese company that extracts bear bile hoped to list on the stock market.
It eventually withdrew its listing application.
Jill Robinson, Animals Asia founder and chief executive, said many of the rescued bears, which can live as long as 30 years, will likely remain at the sanctuary for the rest of their lives.
"This negotiation is a result of years of growing awareness and increased opposition, with the bear farmer showing the moral integrity to do the right thing," Robinson said.