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Chinese medicine proves deadly for Japanese bears

Bear bile is used as traditional Chinese medicine for chronic stomach disease and gallstones  

In this story:

Tracking behavior

Concerns ignored?


KARUIZAWA, Japan (CNN) -- Wild bears soon could be endangered in Japan, where hunters kill the animals to supply pharmacies specializing in traditional Chinese medicine.

Market demand is strong for bear gall bladders and medicines made from bear bile -- a substance a Tokyo pharmacist says can be an effective treatment for chronic stomach disease and related ailments.

"Bear bile is said to be an overall medicine for any ailment of the stomach or gastrointestinal problem," says Yutaka Takahashi. "And it's especially effective for treating gallstones."


Takahashi offers traditional medicine like bear bile on the Internet. More young people are starting to use it -- potentially an ominous threat to Japanese bears.

In the East Asian market for traditional Chinese medicine, Japan remains the only nation with a sizable population of wild bears, about 10,000.

There are brown bears on the northern island of Hokkaido. But most are smaller Asian black bears, on the main southern islands.

Tracking behavior

In the rugged mountains of Karuizawa, northwest of Tokyo, scientists have captured and collared seven black bears to research their habits.

Masaru Koyama of Hoshino Wildlife Research Center keeps track of them to determine how far they range.

"I'm worried about the extinction of the bear here," he says. "Now there's almost no regulation on hunting of the bear and almost no scientific data about bears in Japan.

"So I think it's very important to gather all this information and understand the real state of the bears living here."

Scientists in Karuizawa, northwest of Tokyo, place radio collars on bears to help track them  

Concerns ignored?

Officially, about 1,400 bears are killed every year in Japan for sport hunting and pest control. But conservationists say they think the number is much higher.

Pharmacists say their stocks of imported bear bile medicine are almost exhausted. International trade restrictions and conservation laws have shut down imports from sources like Chinese bear bile farms, widely condemned as inhumane.

Wildlife experts say without more controls on hunting, Japan's wild bears could soon be in peril.

And those concerned about the bears say the importance of their cause is still unrecognized by government authorities and widely ignored by the Japanese public.

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