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Criminals use the Netherlands to operate a network of illegal trade in traditional Chinese medicines (TCM) that contain endangered animals and plants. This is shown in a joint project and investigation by Dutch foundations SPOTS, IUCN NL, Bears in Mind and internationally-known Earth League International (an authority on criminal networks behind illegal wildlife trade). The findings of their investigation is shocking.

IUCN NL, stichting SPOTS, Bears in Mind and Earth League International (ELI) initiated a project to establish whether there is a market in the Netherlands for TCM containing illegally used and traded (wild)
animal parts and, if so, how these (wild) animal parts are smuggled into the Netherlands. On behalf of these organizations ELI was commissioned to investigate this trade. The intelligence-led operations started in September 2021 and ended in December 2022 and aimed to compile and analyze information on the trafficking routes, the main destinations, modus operandi and the key drivers. These findings were shared with the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA) in 2023. They started a follow-up investigation, several warehouse searches were done, seizures made and an arrest took place. The investigation is still ongoing.

Inspectors from the NVWA search through a substantial quantity of TCM produce (c) NVWA

According to the latest TRAFFIC report on seizures of CITES-listed wildlife in the EU in 2021, the most
frequently seized commodity type was medicinals (plant-and animal-derived medicinals which
comprises medicines, extracts and cosmetics); accounting for 1,117 seizure records (27% of the total
2021 seizures). Animal-derived medicinals in 2021 accounted for 17% of the medicinals trade. Trade
continued in medicinal products containing i.e. seahorse and sturgeon, with an increase in seizures
of medicinal products involving rhino horn from < 1% in 2020 to 5% in 2021 (84 specimens). With 11% of
the total seizures in CITES-listed wildlife in the EU, the Netherlands takes the third position after Germany
(25%) and France (22%).

IUCN NL, stichting SPOTS, Bears in Mind and ELI also wish to raise awareness among politicians and the
wider public in the Netherlands about the issues and impact this trade of illegal TCM has on specific
species.

More details can be found in the full report here.

The famous Český Krumlov castle in the Czech Republic is a well-known UNESCO World Heritage site. One of its characterizing features can be noticed from the outside, as it is decorated with ostentatious coats of arms of the lords of the Rosenberg family, with the sign of the five-petalled rose against a silver background and bears as shield bearers. According to Rosenberg family legend, the Rosenbergs were related to the noble Italian family of Orsini. “Orsa” means bear in Italian, and it is this animal motif that the last rulers of Rosenberg in particular used to demonstrate their relationship with the house of Orsini. They used the motif in their coat of arms, which depicts two bears as shield bearers. This alleged relationship would endorse the antiquity of the House of Rosenberg and lead it to its roots in ancient Rome. The depiction of these bears gave birth to an ancient-old tradition of keeping bears at the castle.

An older female called Marie-Terezie is kept in one part of the castle moat, the younger couple in another.

Bears from Český Krumlov
It is not known when the first bears were kept as so-called castle bears in former Bohemia (a former part of the Czech Republic). But it is known that the first bears were kept at Český Krumlov castle from the second half of the 16th century, dating back to the time of Wilhelm von Rosenberg. It is not known where the bears were housed in or near the castle at the time. It could not have been in the current moat, as it was not built until the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War, around 1620. The first records of keeping bears in the moat date from 1707, there were four of them. Bears were kept in the moat continuously from the 1730s to the 1790s, although no animal could be found in the first half of the 19th century. It was not until 1857 that Karl zu Schwarzenberg of the Orlík family obtained some bears from Transylvania (Romania) for Johann Adolf II zu Schwarzenberg. Besides the fact that bears were born in Český Krumlov castle, the number of animals was maintained by purchasing them from zoos, as well as by donations from famous aristocrats. From 1887 the moat remained uninhabited for 20 years. In 1907, Prince Sigmund Schonburg-Waldenburg zu Schwarzenberg presented two bears named Ruschi and Ajax to Český Krumlov, brought from the grounds of Kynžvart castle. The first bear lived until 1930, the other until 1935. After that, the moat has always been inhabited by bears, until present times.

Bear Alert notifications
In addition to bears in the moat of Český Krumlov, bears were and are also locked in moats at other castles. Over the years, Bears in Mind has received many reports via Bear Alert, usually by tourists visiting the castles. Around 2010, an attempt was made to draw attention to this phenomenon in the Czech Republic, but no solution was found. At present (2024) there are three brown bears in Český Krumlov, an Asiatic black bear at Konopiště castle, a brown bear at Náchod castle and one brown bear at Točník castle. The so-called medvědárium in Zámecký park in Kladno has two brown bears. In addition, there is a brown bear in the medvědárium in the city park of Beroun.

Asiatic black bear male called Jiri, kept in the moat of Konopiště castle.

Visit and working towards a solution
Since 2021, we have actively picked up again and started investigating the situation with the local Czech partner and our German colleagues from Foundation for Bears (Stiftung für Bären), how to end this phenomenon once and for all. Foundation for Bears started a petition early 2023 that was signed almost 150,000 times (end of 2023). In mid-June of 2023, the coalition traveled to the Czech Republic to view the situation at the various castles.

Team work, works!

We have had conversations with the local partner, with the castle managers, the local NGO called ‘OBRAZ – Animal Defenders’ and most importantly: with the responsible person within the National Heritage Institute (NPU). This institute falls directly under the Ministry of Culture and is responsible for the management of Czech monuments and castles (and therefore also the bears!). We had a successful first meeting with Mr. Pešek, where we presented our organizations, presented and handed-over the petition, shared our views and proposed solutions (e.g. relocation of all bears to proper sanctuaries in Germany and The Netherlands). Local tradition is an important motivation in this, why there are still bears kept (legally) in this way, unlike the rest of Europe.

FLTR: Rüdiger Schmiedel (St.f.B.), Eva Filipczyková (CZ project leader), Oldřich Pešek (Deputy Director General – NPU), Bernd Nonnenmacher (St.f.B.) and Koen Cuyten (Bears in Mind)

There will be no quick solution, but we will work in phases to end this tradition, in collaboration with the responsible institutions and authorities. Important in this regard is, among other things, conducting sound research such as visitor interviews at the various castles, to gain insight into the opinion and motivation of visitors regarding the captive bears. Both local Czech visitors and international tourists. A thorough reseach project by a MSc student from the Czech University of Life Sciences (CZU) will start in the summer of 2024, funded by Bears in Mind.

In addition, alternative educational options are developed in the castles at the places where the bears are now kept, in combination with a special website and FB page for visitors to the castle bears. This will be easily accessible via a QR code. We want to show the public what bears in captivity really need and what the future of these ‘castle bears’ could look like, with examples from the sanctuaries in Germany and of course our own Bear Forest.

But firstly, there will be a meeting between the coalition including Yorkshire Wildlife Park from the UK and the heads of the NPU at Konopiště castle on May the 14th. The goal is to get consensus on the plans above, officially sign a Memorandum of Understanding and make plans for the relocation of bear Jiri at Konopiště castle to the UK.

To be continued!

In recent years, western Nepal has faced an increasing excessive human-wildlife conflict which resulted into retaliatory killing of bears. Baseline information of conflict, status and distribution of bears in general is lacking, for designing bear conservation and conflict mitigation measures.

This study, supported by Bears in Mind since 2023, will assess the extent and magnitude of Himalayan black bear (Ursus thibetanus laniger) – Human Conflict and importantly Habitat Occupancy in Rara National Park, Nepal. The study will be conducted following an Occupancy Survey and Questionnaire Survey to assess the occupancy and habitat influencing variables as well as people’s perception and conflict zone.

The study will equally emphasize the conservation outreach program in coordination with local communities and schools, situated in close proximity to bear habitat, with the aim of reducing Human – Bear Conflict, raising community awareness regarding the importance of bear safety measures, and awareness of the legal status regarding poaching and hunting of bears.

Bears are sought after for use in traditional medicines, for consumption and live as pets. Indonesia, a well-known hub of illegal wildlife trade (IWT), has a thriving trade in bears yet very little is known of the current status of this trade. This lack of information is an obstacle to conservation actions and hinders efforts to end this illegal trade and ultimately protect bears in the wild.

Understanding the drivers behind the trade, the sources of the bears and other relevant dynamics is key to developing a strategy to counter this crime. Investigating legal deterrents, such as seizures and penalties is also essential in order to better support enforcement efforts and to inform policy decisions. While some work has been done to collect and compile this information, major components of data are missing or outdated, hampering conservation efforts.

With financial support from Bears in Mind, the team from Monitor Conservation Research Society (Monitor) intends to fill these knowledge gaps and use the resulting information to support effective enforcement efforts, strengthen national policies and to catalyse conservation efforts in Indonesia to better protect bears from the illegal wildlife trade.

Illegal wildlife trade is an emerging conservation threat to biodiversity. It is most prominent in developing countries with limited capacity to address illegal trade and regulate legal sustainable trade regulation. Bears are mainly traded for their gall bladder, which is used to treat different medical ailments linked to medicinal traditions. For example, to treat several diseases by the Shoka tribe in India. Or in Traditional Chinese Medicines where an extensive illegal trade into China fuels the use to treat gallstones, liver problems, fever, heart diseases, and eye irritation. But also in traditional Ayurveda and Tibetan medicinal traditions for instance. Following the rampant use of bear bile, and its clinically proven treatment of liver diseases due to the presence of ursodeoxycholic acid (ursodiol), commercial bear bile farming started in the 1980s. The vulnerable Asiatic black bears (Ursus thibetanus), known as Moon bears, Sun bears (Helarctos malayanus), and Brown bears are preferably farmed for bile. This is more prevalent in China where the use of bear bile from captive bears is legal (although, illegal to extract bear bile from wild bears).

Nepal falls between India and China, the two big consumers of traditional medicinals (e.g., Traditional Chinese Medicines in China; Ayurveda in India). Nepal also has consumers of traditional medicines including Amchi also called Tibetan medicinal practitioners, Nepali folk medicines, and Ayurveda; and have documented the historical use of bear parts as a cure for different ailments. There are reports that Nepal acts as a transit, sometimes a source, for bear trade. A recent study indicated Nepal as a transit for bear bile trade from India to China, while there is evidence of Nepal being both a transit and source country.

In this light, Bears in Mind supports this project bij Greenhood Nepal since 2023 to investigate the extent of the trade in Nepal and what measures need to be in place to ensure conservation of bears, as well as expose potential gaps.

Photos (c) Greenhood Nepal

Sun bears (Helarctos malayanus) and Asiatic black bears (Ursus thibetanus) are not only threatened by habitat loss and illegal hunting for body parts, but also captured to supply bear bile extraction facilities. The efforts by Bears in Mind partner Free the Bears (FTB) in Southeast Asia allowed the rescue of almost 400 bears, although options for rescued bears remain mostly limited to lifelong care in sanctuaries. Most rescued bears arriving in FTB’s sanctuaries in the region are under 3 years of age, and as such the ongoing costs of caring for rescued bears throughout their lifespan (often 30+ years) are significant. Although the establishment of a programme for rehabilitation and release may require a substantial initial investment, the outcomes of a successful programme (in addition to potential welfare and conservation benefits of developing successful protocols for the release of Asian bear species) are necessary steps towards bear conservation and can contribute to our understanding of key ecological factors of these species.

The initial plan within this project was to start with the development of a bear release programme in Cat Tien National Park, Vietnam, constructing an isolation and rewilding facility and the development of essential activities to ensure a successful implementation. Unfortunately, due to a change in legislation in Vietnam, building in the national park (even if it benefits vulnerable species like bears) is prohibited at this time. Since this project is part of a regional effort with activities occurring concurrently in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, the focus has been diverted to Cambodia for now.

To date, very few releases of rescued bears have been attempted in the SE Asian region, and those that have taken place previously have had limited results due to restrictions in terms of numbers of individuals, site location and methodology applied. We hope to be able to contribute to the efforts and success by FTB in this region!

Low public awareness of the Asiatic black bear (ABB) in Russia leads to ignorance of this species and threats to its population from government agencies, the media, as well as a negative attitude towards bears from the local residents, which perceives them (along with other large carnivores) as a problem and threat.

This project supported by Bears in Mind since 2021, aims to raise the level of awareness of the public, local residents, authorities and journalists about the the ABB and the current population status; to debunk the negative image about these animals; to form an information agenda aimed at protecting this species and its habitat in Russia, promoting coexistence of bears and people.

The main aim of the project that Bears in Mind is supporting since 2020, is to assess the population dynamics, developed management plan and implementation for the conservation of Asiatic Black Bear (ABB) and its habitat in district of Chitral, Northern Pakistan. Under the project “Population estimation and conservation of Asiatic Black Bear in potential in Hindukush Region Chitral Pakistan” the population field survey was conducted and based on the survey population distribution map for Chitral was developed and shared with other stakeholders. The market was assessed for the first time to get an overview on bear parts trade in the region. Stakeholders were consulted for ABB conservation. Human Bear Conflicts were assessed and the possible mitigation measures were also documented. For effective conservation of the ABB and its habitat, a management plan was jointly developed with the help of the local communities and other stakeholders. Activities were designed to reduce Human Bear Conflicts.

In Chitral district, the ABB remains the least studied and researched species, especially in the past three decades. Due to its unique geo-climatic conditions and ecology, Chitral district – more particularly the southern Chitral – provides ideal habitat for ABB to live in. However, due to lack of proper research, the potential of the region in terms of ABB, is unexplored.

Over the past two years, the Mountain Society for Research & Development Chitral has been implementing the project activities. The focus has been on:

  • Improved management of ABB habitat which integrates sustainable forest & land management and compatible conservation practice.
  • Participatory conservation to reduce Human Bear Conflicts and improve livelihoods of local communities.
  • Promote awareness and sensitization among the local communities and other stakeholders for the conservation of ABB (and associated biodiversity conservation).

Bears in Mind will continue the financial support in 2023 with the emphasis on empowering Indigenous Community Conserved Areas (ICCAs) as tools for ABB conservation in Chitral, Pakistan.

Bear bile has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for thousands of years, with the market in China predominantly involving bile from Asiatic black bears. Despite the introduction of bear farming across Asia in the 1970s to supply the trade in bile, little is known about the effects of farming on demand for wild bile, or the current impact that the trade in bear bile has on wild bears. At the 2012 IUCN World Conservation Congress in S.Korea, concern about bear farming led to the adoption of Recommendation 139, which called for a “scientifically independent, peer-reviewed situation analysis” to evaluate the contribution of bear farming to the status of wild bear populations.

This project will directly address this Recommendation, taking a consumer and market-based approached using methods designed to understand how the market for farmed bear bile has affected the market for wild bear bile by investigating the complex interactions of these two markets (both in terms of demand and product availability). After the initial funding of meetings between experts from various IUCN Spcialist Groups and the Chinese Government in 2013-2014, Bears in Mind funded a Key Informant Survey conducted in December 2015, which was most helpful in designing the follow-up in-depth investigation. In 2015 interviews were conducted by a China-IUCN team to collect important information about the trade and management of Asiatic black bears in China. Trade in this sense, included the legal and illegal trade. It also included trade in live animals as well as their parts (bear-bile and bear paws). Interviews were conducted in a qualitative format, intended to guide further research and analysis.

2017 – 2019
This follow-up began end of 2017, when Bears in Mind funded a continuation of the large-scale study led by the University of Oxford in the UK in close cooperation with the Sun Yat Sen University in China, the SFA and the IUCN SSC Bear Specialist Group. The focus was on the consumption, prescription and sale of bear bile, which resulted in some of the first datasets on the prevalence and motivations for bear bile consumption across four provinces in China.

Online consumer survey
The team had a final sample of 1,845 respondents. Most (88%, n = 1621) had used some form of bear bile in their lifetime, with more than 2/3 of these consumers (70.1%, n = 1145) buying bile within the last year. Most people (79.3%, n = 1462) knew at least one bile-user, with parents and grandparents being the most frequently reported users. Most consumers (85.6% (n = 1388) stated that they had used bile for medicinal purposes, with 64.1% (n = 1036) reporting that they had used it as a health tonic, and 19% (n = 308) as a gift. The most common place people reported buying bile was at the pharmacy (n = 1142) followed by a hospital (n = 1045), with the least common being from a personal contact (n = 140). The most frequently reported form of bile used was eyedrops (n = 749), with tea the least reported (n = 42). Although 390 people reported using a bear gallbladder, mismatches between reported source and form suggest many do not know the source of bile they use.

Online trade
Data collection on online sales for bear bile products on the domestic markets. Information was mostly obtained from e-commerce platforms like Baidu and Bing.cn, as well as select discussion forums like WeChat and social mediaplatforms, to provide insights in the online trading environment from both formal and informal interactions, and consumer interest for specific bear bile product types, particularly
of farmed and synthetic origin.

2021 – present
In January-April 2021 Sun Yat-sen University (China) and the University of Oxford (UK) worked with multi-stakeholders of bear bile consumption, including consumers, pharmacy workers and TCM doctors to co-design post-COVID19 strategies for reducing illegal bear bile consumption. Specifically, the organized workshops highlighted that consumers and/or potential consumers would respond best to health-related and legality-focussed messaging, whereas the general public should respond best to legality-focussed messaging and incentives to report illegal consumption when they saw it. In this project, the team will test interventions designed in these workshops with key target groups, to evaluate their effectiveness for reducing illegal bear bile use and sale, and make recommendations for future larger-scale interventions. In addition to testing the interventions, the team will also use their findings for larger public outreach, by holding a ‘bear event day’ in the popular Guangzhou Zoo, as there will be a series of events or activities about biodiversity conservation. After the events, the team will also provide the education centre of the zoo with some educational materials from our project.

More information soon…

The situation regarding captive bears in the Ukraine is dire. As many as 400 bears may be held under poor conditions throughout the country, in private ownership or small zoos. Unregulated and illegal breeding of bears is a major problem. Our partner Eco-Halych is gathering data on these cases in order to properly estimate the scale of the problem. They already operate a small sanctuary for several of the brown bears, rescued in 2016. Bears in Mind has provided funds to equipe a surgery room at the sanctuary, so bears that are brought in can undergo basic dental treatment, castration or other surgery needed.

Bears in Mind and several other international animal welfare organisations are planning to work more closely together, with the responsible Ministry in UA, in order to end captive bear suffering in the Ukraine.

Hopefully, after the war in UA has ended, we can resume our joint and urgent tasks in the Ukraine.