Singapore fights trade in bear gall bladders and other exotic animal parts

Among the gleaming skyscrapers of Singapore’s Financial District hides an area where an ancient civilization and centuries-old beliefs are being carefully preserved.

The Chinese community is the biggest ethnic group in Singapore. Composing around 75 percent of the population, their culture has become an integral part of life here. Singapore's Chinatown is no longer an enclave like it used to be, but a national heritage site and an important tourist attraction. But despite this careful protection of traditions, there is one part of this ancient culture that troubles Singapore: traditional Chinese medicine.

For years, traditional Chinese medicine used exotic and endangered animal organs and parts, and continues to, despite an international ban.

The illegal trade of bear gall bladders, bear bile powder, deer limbs, snake skins, lizards and bats is where Singapore’s Chinatown’s oriental charm stops.

Chinatown's markets openly and fearlessly offer what its owners could easily be punished for.

“I think when we look at Singapore in particular, trafficking is listed as one of the top ten illegal wildlife trading hubs in the world today,” said Louis Ng, executive director of ACRES (Animal Concerns Research & Education Society). “I think it is quite a big problem, because we are such a small country and yet we are contributing to this problem quite significantly toward the demise of other species.”

While traditional Chinese healers believe that bear bile is an aphrodisiac and effective against jaundice, liver infections and epileptic convulsions, animal rights activists doubt they have any medical knowledge on how to treat people, while they are sure they totally mistreat animals.

Singapore’s government and NGOs have combined efforts to stop the trade. They are pushing traditional Chinese medicine stores to declare a complete moratorium on the use of exotic animal parts – and many are yielding.

“I can see that traditional Chinese medicine is improving and trying to find some herbal substitutions to replace the animal parts, like tiger tails and bear bile,” Kelvin Zeng Zhuo, director of the Sinchong traditional Chinese medicine group, told RT. “I think we have the responsibility to protect the world and to protect the animals.”

But words are not always turned into action.

With authorities reporting an increase in trade and inspections revealing more and more outlets openly selling banned products, endangered species are still very much in danger.