Updated July. 21, 2012 07:26
At a bear-breeding farm Friday in Anseong, Gyeonggi Province, half-moon bears began to knock on the steel bars of their cages with a twinkle in their eyes.
The farm owner said, The bears are now happy to see people.
The cages were each 3.3 square meters and made of steel bars all around. The farm has some 30 cages lined up from side to side, with one or two bears living in one cage.
○ "Farmers cannot let the bears die"
When imported in 1981, the bears were expected to be a good source of income for their new owner. Back then, the Korean government encouraged farmers to raise bears through TV news, saying, Bear gall bladders and leather are popular in Korea. Raising bears will replace imports. About 30 years later, however, the 27 bears at the Anseong farm have become hot potatoes for their owner.
Bear farm owners must slaughter bears over age 10 and sell their gall bladders. Considering the average life span of a wild bear, the government first allowed bears over age 24 to be slaughtered. Due to opposition from bear farm owners, however, the age requirement was lowered to 10 in 2005.
Extracting a gall bladder from a living bear under age 10 or selling other parts from a slaughtered bear is illegal. The price of a bear`s gall bladder ranges from 20 million to 30 million won (17,536 to 26,304 U.S. dollars) because farmers have to raise bears for more than 10 years to get just 10 grams of gall bladder.
In recent years, however, demand for bear gall bladders has dropped sharply due to fears over the animals` welfare on top of the expensive price. Bear farm owners have been banned from selling their bears abroad since 1993, when Korea joined the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which prohibits the international trade of endangered species.
Unable to sell, the Anseong farm owner has not had a bear slaughtered over the past four years. Of his 27 bears, 20 are more than 10 years old. Bears eat 50 to 70 dollars worth of feed a day, costing the owner about 1,700 dollars a month. He feeds the bears with income from agricultural farming.
I want to get rid of the bear farm right away but I can`t just abandon the bears. Because I`ve raised them for more than 10 years, my heart just cannot let them die of hunger, he said.
Around 1,000 bears are raised at 50 farms across Korea, and all of the farms face a similar to that of the Anseong farm. Lack of income has driven certain owners to extract gall bladders from living bears and sell them illegally.
Such owners cannot properly invest in facility maintenance. Even cages are often so shabby that two bears escaped Sunday from a bear farm in Yongin, Gyeonggi Province.
The same species of half-moon bears living around Mount Jiri are specially cared for and protected by the government because they are classified as an endangered species. But the situations of the bears at farms are drastically different just because they are not wild. They are merely cattle bred to produce gall bladders.
○ Farmers to release bears in front of gov`t complex.
Bear farm owners insist that the government bear the responsibility for raising bears and buy all of them. Certain owners and animal protection groups say that if the government buys all the bears and euthanizes bears older than age 10, the entire cost will be lowered to around 30 billion won (2.6 million dollars).
The Environment Ministry estimates the cost at 100 billion won (88 million dollars), including post-euthanasia costs, saying euthanasia is not an option at this stage considering public sentiment.
The bears are to be killed either way, however. If the gall bladders sell well as before, the bears will be slaughtered, and the same goes if the government chooses euthanasia. Thus the bears are effectively death row inmates.
While the government is planning to reconsider the matter after another study of the bear farms situation, the owners have threatened to release bears in front of the government complex in Gyeonggi Province in protest.
For both humans and bears, experts recommend that the government help found and support a private organization to care for the bears while inducing corporate sponsorship. This is how a bear protection center in China`s Sichuan Province is being run
Lee Gwan-gyu, a landscape architecture professor at Kangwon National University, said, "Theme parks in Korea could take 20~30 bears with financial assistance from the government. The government may sell the bears to veterinary schools so that they can live in the research forests of the schools."