By Brendan Moyle 11/12/2015

Wifi isn’t so good on this trip.  Finding a signal to upload posts has become tricky. I can’t upload photos with these speeds either.  Nonetheless, it’s good to hear news from home when we do get a signal!

Looking at the weather in Beijing, we feel fortunate to be working in Mudanjiang. The sky yesterday was clear and blue, and still covered in snow. Hank takes a pic of the sky to share with his colleague in Beijing. Or to annoy them. Assuming they’re still alive. I’m trying to figure out the art of walking on snow and ice. So far, so good. I haven’t slipped over once.

Leaving Beijing was a little torturous. They’re on a bit of a heightened security alert. My camera bag had to go through the X-ray machine three times, as they removed more and more gear. With the long queues already this adds to the time to make it to the departure gate.

So far, so good. Interviews and data-gathering is going well, but punctuated by banquets. There’s some private money supporting the research. We’re doing a lot of sitting and eating. Skipping breakfast seems to be one of the best ways to cope. Also drinking.

Baiju is served at every meal, lunch and dinner. Along with much toasting and drinking baiju. Or moutai. Both are spirit rice wines. This is how it is done here. Fortunately Hank is better known to the Chinese. Which means I dodge a bullet. He gets asked to do most of the drinking. Not that I’m spared. It takes up time, but it’s necessary.

It’s hard to start looking at the bear bile black-market without getting a solid understanding of the legal market. This is especially the case this time. The research agenda is to work out the relationship between the legal and illegal. Going in not knowing how the legal market is organised is every colour of stupid. So part of the fieldwork is learning more. For obvious reasons, I can’t supply much in the way of details.

Bear biochemistry

Mudanjiang has the largest bear farm in China. Hank knows the owner, Liu Jide. This helps with both access and cooperation. In theory I’m the outsider this time. Bear bile is extracted from bile-bears twice a day. But not all bears are used for bile production. The percentage is less than half. Some bears are there for breeding and some are retired. After the bile is extracted it is dried into crystals.

Bear bile contains some unique acids that have known pharmacological effects. It’s likely the result of winter hibernation. In such a state, the bear’s biochemistry has to maintain muscle mass, sustain the bear, eliminate wastes and fight infections. That’s where evolution has delivered with the ingredients in the bile. This is unlike say, rhino horn where there are no pharmacological effects.

The output of legal bile is very high. A bile-bear on farm will produce more bile than a single, poached bear by around 2 orders of magnitude. This means the legal supply dwarfs the illegal. This is a different situation to ivory, where the illegal market had more stores, and sold more volume than the legal. Somehow we will have to learn more about the illegal bile market, and figure out whether the legal supply of bile, is reducing poaching. Complicating the problem is the poaching for bear-paws. The primary driver of poaching may not be for bile at all.