China: Scandalous! Lesley Nicol travels to Nanning, China, known for its bear bile trade! Bears are blind or have their teeth and claws hacked out


Mrs Patmore’s flustered features crumple into tears as she watches vets and nurses tend to a sick animal on the grimy floor of a Chinese farm where, for years, bears have been imprisoned in tiny cages and milked for their bile.

‘This bear has had a terrible, terrible life,’ says Lesley Nicol. ‘All she has known is appalling betrayal from mankind, and it has all been for money – there is absolutely no point to it.

‘Why she’s not screaming and raging at us, I don’t know. I feel totally ashamed.’

Grotesque: In this rather gruesome frame, a worker drains one of the bears of its bile - which will be sold on to make a selection of medicines and cosmetics

Grotesque: In this rather gruesome frame, a worker drains one of the bears of its bile – which will be sold on to make a selection of medicines and cosmetics


Extracting bile – a digestive juice produced by the liver and stored in the gall bladder – is deeply painful and invasive.

To enable farmers to carry out the technique without being attacked, the bears are kept in ‘crush cages’ so small they can hardly move.

Each is then ‘milked’ with a catheter inserted into its gall bladder – bile is extracted twice a day, with the same wound being reopened again and again.

To combat infection, the bears are fed high doses of antibiotics. However, disease can still be found in some bile products for sale.

Some 6,000 miles from the refined manners of Downton Abbey, the indignation of the actress who plays kindly cook Mrs Patmore is easy to see. On a week’s break from filming the fifth series of the hit ITV drama, Lesley has travelled to the jagged limestone mountains near the China-Vietnam border with The Mail on Sunday to see a British-run charity’s mission to stop the bear bile trade.

In a makeshift field animal hospital, an hour’s drive from the city of Nanning, she is helping vets from charity Animals Asia carry out health checks on a group of bears who have been subjected to excruciatingly painful bile extraction.

Over 10,000 Asiatic black bears – an endangered species known as ‘moon bears’ for the cream-coloured crescents on their chests – are confined in cages from birth, often too small for them even to turn around, in farms across China and other southeast Asian countries.

Some are blind or have had their teeth and claws hacked out, while many are psychologically scarred by their captivity. Others with terminal growths and cancers will see their struggle for survival end with a merciful lethal injection.

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