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KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters Life!) - Poaching and illegal trade of bears, whose bile is used in traditional medicine and folk remedies, remains robust across Asia, putting wild bear populations under unrelenting pressure, according to a report by a wildlife trade monitoring network.
Products made from bile extracted from bears' gall bladders were found on sale in traditional medicine outlets in all but one of the 13 nations and territories surveyed by TRAFFIC. Macao was the sole exception.
"Both the Asiatic Black Bear and the Sun Bear are threatened by poaching and illegal trade," said Kaitlyn-Elizabeth Foley, lead author of the report and senior program officer of TRAFFIC Southeast Asia, in a statement.
"The demand for bile is one of the greatest drivers behind this trade and must be reduced if bear conservation efforts are to succeed."
In cases where bile is extracted, the process requires milking open incisions, which animal rights groups say causes physical and psychological suffering.
The products -- including whole gall bladders and pills -- were most frequently found in mainland China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Myanmar and Vietnam, where they were for sale in half of all places surveyed.
The report noted that while sales of bear bile are legal in some Asian nations -- including mainland China and Japan -- any trade across borders is prohibited by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
In some cases this appears to be going on, with the origin of some bile products murky at best, the report said.
It cited Myanmar, where some gall bladders were reported to come from Laos, and Hong Kong, where pills were reported to have come from Japan, pointing to a "complex and robust" trading network in which some nations produced bile products, some nations consumed them, and some did both.
"Unbridled illegal trade in bear parts and products continues to undermine CITES," Foley added.
While in some cases the bile products came from animals on bear farms, very few of the farms said they had captive breeding programs, suggesting they rely on bears taken from the wild, the report said.
The countries and territories surveyed included Cambodia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, mainland China, Japan, Laos, Korea, Taiwan and Macao.
Attitudes within Asia may be starting to change, however, albeit slowly. Earlier this year, an online fury erupted after news that a Chinese company that extracts bile from captive bears for use in traditional medicine hoped to list on the stock market.
Reporting by Elaine Lies, editing by Miral Fahmy