Bear bile and other patent products on sale in a pharmacy in China. Photo: Lin Guinan. 中国药店货架上的含熊胆粉的药品及其他药品。拍摄者:林圭南

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Bear bile is a wildlife product which has long been an important medicine in China, but which sparks animal welfare and conservation concerns. In China, bile from approved bear farms is used in legal medicines sold in hospitals and pharmacies to treat a range of illnesses, most often linked to the liver or eyes. However, there is also an illicit market for gallbladders from illegally-hunted wild bears.

The aim of our study was to understand who uses bear bile medicines, what types they use, and how often they use them. We also wanted to better understand knowledge and views of bear bile, from the perspective of both consumers and medical practitioners (pharmacists and doctors). Our research team worked in large cities in four Chinese provinces, using different methods including interviews with medical practitioners and public surveys.

We found that just over one in 10 people use bear bile medicines, and that the medicines are seen as important treatments for specific illnesses. People who use bear bile medicines often did not know whether the source of the bile they were using was wild or farmed. Furthermore, although many doctors and pharmacy workers thought that wild products were more effective than farmed, we did not find any evidence during our interviews of wild bile being prescribed or sold. Nevertheless, small numbers of consumers did admit to using wild bile recently.

We show that combining different methods to find out information from diverse people involved in the wildlife trade can shed light on complex wildlife markets. In China, bear bile products have important links to medicinal tradition as well as being an everyday medicine for large numbers of people. With the potential overlap between farmed and wild bear bile consumption, conservation interventions that lead to abrupt changes in these markets must carefully consider how consumers and practitioners may react. Beyond the bear bile trade, our work highlights the importance of considering perspectives from a range of different people who may be involved in shaping demand for wildlife products when designing or evaluating conservation interventions.