Best of our wild blogs: 23 May 13

Shock from the Deep, with otter on Day 3 of the Southern Expedition
from Mega Marine Survey of Singapore

Poikilospermum suaveolens and birds
from Bird Ecology Study Group

Random Gallery - Pea Blue
from Butterflies of Singapore and Random Gallery - Gram Blue

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Bear bile farms: Folk Remedy Extracted From Captive Bears Stirs Furor in China

Andrew Jacobs New York Times 21 May 13;

CHENGDU, China — It was, at first glance, a rather modest initial public offering by a small Chinese company seeking to expand production of the key ingredient used in traditional remedies said to shrink gallstones, reduce fevers and sooth the aftereffects of excessive drinking.

But Guizhentang Pharmaceutical, the country’s largest producer of bear bile extract, apparently overlooked one important factor before submitting its application to the Shenzhen Stock Exchange: China’s increasingly audacious animal rights movement.

Guizhentang’s proposal to triple the company’s stock of captive bears, to 1,200 from 400, provoked a firestorm from those opposed to bear bile farming, a process that involves inserting tubes into the abdomens of bears and “milking” them, sometimes for years.

Protesters in bear suits picketed drugstores, hackers briefly brought down Guizhentang’s Web site and more than 70 Chinese celebrities, including the basketball star Yao Ming and the pop diva Han Hong, circulated a petition calling on the stock exchange to reject the I.P.O.

After some of China’s biggest news media outlets posted harrowing undercover footage revealing cages so tight the bears could barely move, Guizhentang last month withdrew its application, saying it needed more time to put together its filing.

For China’s animal welfare advocates, the victory signaled the growing clout of a movement that is frequently derided as bourgeois, frivolous or worse. Its most vociferous opponents paint animal advocates as foreign-financed traitors who would do away with such hallowed Chinese traditions as dog meat hot pot, ivory carving and dried deer penis, consumed to increase virility.

Deborah Cao, a lawyer who frequently writes about animal rights in China, said campaigns like the one that defeated Guizhentang showed how social media brought together the generation of educated Chinese urbanites who grew up with household pets and anthropomorphic Disney characters. “It’s a bottom-up, grass-roots movement, one that is contributing to an emerging civil society increasingly aware of individual rights and obligations, be it to humans or animals,” she said.

Such activism is even more notable given the constraints the Communist Party typically imposes on public lobbying, street protests or any unsanctioned organizing.

Advocates have not yet persuaded the government to enact animal welfare legislation. But optimists say they have started to chip away at the long-held notion that animals exist to satisfy the medicinal and gastronomical needs of humans.

Activists point to the growing visibility of public awareness campaigns targeting the consumption of shark fins as well as a recent spate of vigilante rescue efforts that have blocked trucks laden with cats and dogs from reaching the slaughterhouse. In December, the state-run broadcaster CCTV ran a series of exposés highlighting the illegal consumption of monitor lizards, rhesus monkeys, barking deer and other wildlife, and the police crackdown on black market dealers that followed.

“Animal rights activists are walking an incredibly sensitive tightrope, but I think they’re reaching a tipping point right now,” said Jill Robinson, the director of Animals Asia, an organization based in Hong Kong that has been campaigning for two decades to end bear bile farming.

Still, despite what appears to be growing public opposition to the practice, the Chinese government is not prepared to end the lucrative trade in ursodeoxycholic acid, the active ingredient found in bear gallbladders. Although scientists have engineered a synthetic alternative, traditionalists claim it lacks the therapeutic punch of raw bile, which can sell for as much as $24,000 a kilogram, roughly half the price of gold.

Scientists have scrutinized the health effects of bear bile but have come to no definitive conclusions. But sold in powdered form as capsules, or as a tonic, bile is considered by many to be an elixir of sorts. Bile marketers say it fortifies the liver, reduces flu symptoms and improves eyesight.

Yang Tingying, a vendor at the wholesale Chinese medicine market here in Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan, insisted that bear bile cures all manner of liver ailments, including hepatitis. “It’s the best because it’s from nature,” she said, pulling out a pair of desiccated gall bladders, which are illegal to sell.

To the distress of its opponents, the industry has grown significantly in the 13 years since Chinese officials first pledged to gradually reduce the number of captive bears to 1,500 from 7,000. These days, there are an estimated 20,000 bears on nearly 100 domestic bear farms, an expansion fueled in part by marketing efforts promoting novel uses for bear bile, like a hangover cure for well-to-do businessmen who engage in nightly carousing.

Besides China, there are bear bile farms in Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and North Korea.

For animal welfare advocates, the challenge is to convince Chinese consumers that the barbarity of bile farming outweighs the supposed medicinal benefits of natural bile — or that the risks of consuming bile from sick bears pumped with antibiotics are high.

In addition to circulating videos of harvesting practices, organizations like Animals Asia wield a number of secret weapons, including Sun Li, Caesar and Buddha. They are among the 158 rescued bears that roam the group’s sanctuary outside Chengdu. The center receives school groups, celebrities and Chinese reporters, all of who are invariably smitten with the bears.

Most of the animals came from farms closed by the authorities because they had fewer than 50 bears, a violation of industry rules. The bulk of the animals are Asiatic black bears, a threatened species better known as the moon bear for the distinctive white crescent that arcs across its chest.

Nicola Field, the sanctuary’s chief veterinarian, said bears often arrived emaciated, their abdomens riddled with the infections, hernias and tumors that are hallmarks of a extraction process requiring open wounds for thrice-daily milkings.

The bears’ teeth are invariably worn down from gnawing on the bars of their cages and their feet are often in pitiful shape because few of the animals have ever walked on the ground. “The catalog of abuse they’ve endured is appalling,” Ms. Field said.

The years of pain and confinement are so traumatizing, some of the rescued bears spend endless hours butting their heads against walls or gnawing on their limbs.

Industry supporters have mounted their own pro-bile public relations campaign, stressing China’s history of traditional medicine and suggesting that animal rights advocates are doing the bidding of foreign drug companies out to promote Western medicine at the expense of homegrown remedies.

During a news conference last year called to counter critics, Fang Shuting, chairman of the China Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine, suggested that bears enjoy the process, which he likened to turning on a tap. “Natural, easy and without pain,” he said. “After they’re done, the bears can even play happily outside.”

His remarks backfired, producing a torrent of ridicule on social media and refutations from experts who said bear farmers could not possibly let the animals leave their cages. “Bears are smart like dogs and remember pain,” said Zhang Xiaohai, who has visited a number of bear farms as an undercover investigator for Animals Asia. “They would never willingly come back to be milked again.”

But Mr. Zhang and others find hope in the attitudes of young Chinese like Guan Zhiling, who was visiting the sanctuary with her high school classmates. “It’s brutal and disrespectful to the bears, and a disgrace to the human race,” she said.

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Malaysia: 30pc decline in Malayan sun bear population

Avila Geraldine New Straits Times 23 May 13;

VULNERABLE SPECIES: Loss of suitable habitat and poaching have reduced numbers in the past three decades

SANDAKAN: THE population of the Malayan sun bear has declined by 30 per cent in the last three decades due to habitat loss and poaching for parts used in traditional medicine.

In Borneo, the smallest of the world's eight bear species is also seeing a drop in numbers following their illegal capture for the pet trade as well as being killed after being wrongly perceived as pests.

The sun bears are found throughout mainland Asia, Sumatra in Indonesia and Borneo but their exact numbers in the wild is unknown, making it even more pressing to reduce pressure on a species that is classified "vulnerable" on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List and at risk of becoming endangered unless circumstances threatening their survival improve.

Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) founder and chief executive officer Wong Siew Te said the sun bear was divided into two sub-species -- the Helarctos malayanus malayanus and the Helarctos malayanus euryspilus, with the latter, smaller bear found only in Borneo.

"In other words, sun bears in Borneo are even smaller than sun bears found in other parts of Malaysia and the region.

"We hope to share with more locals how fortunate we are that such a unique bear is found here in Borneo and right here in Sabah," he said in a statement.

Shrinking forest cover makes poaching and capturing wild bears easier due to increased contact with human settlements, Wong added.

Currently, BSBCC is holding 28 rescued bears. Some of these bears were illegally kept as pets while others were trapped in the forest and sent to the centre.

"Bears here are trained to adapt to the forest within an enclosed area as some have never been in the wild, having been kept as pets from a young age," said Wong, adding the bears would be released into the wild after an evaluation process.

The centre is located adjacent to the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre here.

"We need to protect the remaining forest cover if we are to secure the future of sun bears and, at the same time, eliminate any poaching of these bears in the wild.

"Awareness activities will be stepped up once the centre is officially opened to the public, tentatively by early next year."

Sun bears are also classified as a "totally protected species" under the Sabah Wildlife Conservation Enactment 1997, providing it the same status as orang utans and the Sumatran rhinoceros.

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Indonesia: Sumatran elephants run amok in Riau`s oil palm plantation

Antara 22 May 13;

Pekanbaru, Riau (ANTARA News) - A herd of Sumatran elephants ran amok in an oil palm plantation in Minas, Riau Province, seriously injuring one worker identified by his name as Samuel Rudi Antoni Aritonang.

"An elephant lifted my husband by using its trunk. The animal later trampled and kicked him like a ball. It`s really a miracle that he survives," Nurjenti Sidabutar, the victim`s wife, said here on Wednesday.

Aritonang, 42, was attacked by the elephants on last Saturday evening when he was guarding the plantation which is located not far from the Riau Elephant Conservation Center in Minas.

The incident occurred when a male and female elephants with their baby walked through the plantation area and Aritonang intended to drive them away. But he was too close to the elephant cub and triggered the female elephant to attack him.

Aritonang suffered broken ribs, arms and right shoulder blade. His lung was also injured because of the attack.

He is now being hospitalized at Santa Maria Hospital in Pekanbaru and must undergo a surgery to survive.

"But we don`t have money. My husband is only a security worker and his salary is only Rp1.5 million (around US$170) per month," Sidabutar, a mother of five children, said.

She urged the local authorities to help cover the medical cost of her husband.

Meanwhile, Head of the Riau Nature Conservation Agency Memen Suparman believed the elephants who ran amok are wild elephants, because elephants in the conservation area are tightly guarded.(*)

Editor: Heru

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Indonesian Government Rejects Green Claims on Aceh Deforestation

Jakarta Globe 22 May 13;

The Forestry Ministry has denied claims by several environmental groups that 1.2 million hectares of protected forest in Aceh will be cleared if the province’s proposed spatial planning draft is approved.

In a statement issued on Tuesday, Hadi Daryanto, the ministry’s secretary general said the draft proposed by the administration of Governor Zaini Abdullah only called for a change to the current spatial plan to allow up to 119,000 hectares of currently protected forest to be designated for commercial use.

He added that the team evaluating the proposal for the central government had recommended that only 26,000 hectares be approved for commercial forestry and 79,000 hectares for other use.

“So the accusations by these nongovernmental organizations that Aceh will lose 1.2 million hectares of protected forest is not correct, and the figure being touted must be clarified,” Hadi said.

His remarks echoed similar comments by Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, the head of the government task force on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+), who said in a statement over the weekend that his team had pored over existing data and documents and not found any evidence of plans to convert up to 1.2 million hectares of forest.

“The figure for forest conversion proposal is consistent with what was stated by the Aceh regional government and the Forestry Ministry,” Kuntoro said, as quoted by the environmental news portal

Kuntoro attributed the figure of 1.2 million hectares to the difference between the total forest cover proposed by the previous governor, Irwandi Yusuf, and that proposed by Zaini.

Irwandi’s plan would have seen 2.75 million hectares of forest protected, or 855,000 hectares more than the 1.895 million hectares designated in the 2000 spatial plan. Zaini’s plan, however, would leave 1.79 million hectares protected, or 105,000 hectares less than the 2000 plan.

The difference of 105,000 hectares comes from the amount of land that the evaluation team is currently recommending be approved for commercial use.

More than 1 million people across the globe have signed an online petition demanding the Indonesian government scrap Zaini’s proposed spatial plan, based on the argument that it would lead to the clearing of 1.2 million hectares of previously protected forest.

Although the plan appears to contradict the central government’s recent decision to extend a moratorium on clearing primary and peat forests, the project is possible because it hinges on Aceh’s decision to overturn its own deforestation ban, which was introduced at the local level six years ago.

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China says its legal ivory trade not to blame for poaching

Sally Huang and Ben Blanchard PlanetArk 22 May 13;

China's small traditional trade in carving uses ivory acquired through legal auctions and in no way encourages or worsens the problem of elephant poaching in Africa, a senior Chinese official said on Tuesday.

Demand for ivory as an ornamental item is soaring in Asia and especially in China, driven by the rising purchasing power of the region's newly affluent classes as well as growing Chinese investment in Africa and demand for its resources.

That has led to an increase in the illegal slaughter of African elephants for their ivory, with some wildlife groups estimating that over 90 percent of the ivory on sale in China is illegally sourced.

But Yan Xun, chief engineer of the wildlife conservation department under the State Forestry Administration, said it was unfair to blame China for the rise in poaching.

"Has China's legal ivory trade caused the poaching of wild elephants? I don't think there's necessarily a connection," he told a news briefing.

"The reasons for poaching wild elephants around the world are very complex, including competition for resources between people and elephants, livelihood issues for local people, war and ... the mistaken belief ivory generates huge profit margins."

China only permits 37 companies to work with ivory and 145 to sell the finished product. They use no more than a total of 5,000 kg of legal ivory every year, he said.

"I'd like to say that the Chinese ivory trade is mainly to hand down the art of exquisite carvings using ivory. This is not any ordinary trade," Yan added.

"The Chinese government has been paying great attention to the protection of elephants and we legally source ivory through international auctions," he said, adding China has to date sourced some 60 metric tons (66 tons) of ivory this way.

Convicted ivory smugglers can be jailed for life, Yan said.

While China has shown no sign of banning the ivory trade, Thailand's prime minister said earlier this year that her country would do so, promising legislation that could help the country avoid international trade sanctions after criticism by environmental groups.

China is the world's largest illegal ivory market, followed by Thailand, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature.

(Reporting by Sally Huang and Ben Blanchard, editing by Elaine Lies and Ron Popeski)

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