Bears That Inspired 'Adorable' Korean Paralympic Mascot Live In Caged Captivity

Jan 9, 2017
Originally published on January 9, 2017 11:26 am

When South Korea's mountain town of PyeongChang hosts the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games next year, a white tiger and a black bear, respectively, will serve as mascots. They've been introduced as cuddly icons of Korean history and folklore.

"They are so cute and adorable, so I'm sure that you're gonna fall in love with them," Korea's figure skating champ and former Olympian Yuna Kim said, in announcing the PyeongChang 2018 mascots in a promotional video.

The "adorable" Asiatic black bear is better known regionally as a moon bear, for the distinctive white crescent on its chest. It's native to Korea and a symbol of the province where the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games will be held.

"It's a very unique and symbolic creature in Korea," says Anna Jihyun You, a spokeswoman for the Olympics here.

"I can't say ... how far [these bears] go back [in folklore] but it's really since a long time ago," she says.

But that place in history and lore hasn't spared the actual bear breed itself from cruelty. An hour's drive south of Seoul, you can find a bear-bile farm, one of 39 sprinkled across the country. Here, farmer Kim Kwang-su keeps 230 moon bears in rusty cages.

He breeds them and cages them for the legal minimum of 10 years. Then they're slaughtered for their gall bladders. In East Asia, bear bile is believed to solve a host of health problems — from hangovers to heart disease. The bears are never let out.

"It's true we don't have play facilities for the bears," Kim says. "But in South Korea right now, almost all these bears are kept in cages."

A century ago that wasn't true. Moon bears roamed freely in the mountains of Korea. But bear bile became such a sought-after traditional medicine that today, the bears have been captured and farmed to near extinction.

"The way that these bears are farmed is particularly cruel," says Jill Robinson, a veterinarian and founder and CEO of Animals Asia foundation. Her organization has been working, along with other nonprofits, to try to end the practice of bear-bile farming in China, Vietnam and South Korea.

"This is an issue that I sort of discovered way back in 1993 when I walked onto a bear-bile farm for the first time in my life and was just absolutely horrified by what I saw," she says. "Cages and cages all around me, with bears with the most miserable faces, with 6-inch catheters protruding from their abdomens. Their teeth cut back, their paw tips cut back so that they couldn't hurt the farmers as they were extracting the bile."

Since then, South Korea has banned the practice of milking bears for bile while they are alive. But the animals are still living in captivity until they're killed. The bear farmer — Kim — says he has come to enjoy the bears he keeps. But he has no other livelihood.

"Only by selling the bile can I maintain the business," Kim says. "So it hurts, it hurts me. I don't even look at them when they're being slaughtered. I feel really sad. I mean, you're not a human being if you're not sad about it."

That underlines the gulf between what's happening to the actual Asiatic black bears and the cartoon-cute character of next year's Paralympic mascot. While moon bear mascot "Bandabi" glides his way down animated mountains in promo videos, the inspirations for Bandabi spend their days banging their heads against their cages.

"I just hope the Korean government does make that connection and finally gives its incredible species of bear the freedom they deserve," Robinson says.

Demand for bear bile has collapsed, which has led to the closure of many farms already. But nearly 800 moon bears still live in caged limbo in their native country.

Haeryun Kang contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

One year from now, South Korea will host the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games. One Olympic tradition is to select mascots. The Koreans chose two animals native to the country, a white tiger and a black bear. But as NPR's Elise Hu reports, there's a disturbing history for the bear in the country now celebrating it.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: When Korean Olympian Yuna Kim announced the PyeongChang 2018 mascots - a white tiger named Soohorang and Bandabi, an Asiatic black bear - this is how she described them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YUNA KIM: They are so cute and adorable, so I'm sure that you're going to fall in love with them.

HU: The adorable Asiatic black bear is better known regionally as a moon bear for the distinctive white crescent on its chest. It's a symbol of the province where the Olympic Games will be held.

ANNA JIHYUN YOU: It's a very unique and symbolic creature in Korea.

HU: Anna Jihyun You is a spokeswoman for the Olympics here. She says moon bears have long been part of Korean folklore.

YOU: I can't say exact date how far it go back, but it's a really long time ago.

HU: Its place in folklore and history hasn't spared the actual bear breed itself from cruelty in Korea. An hour's drive south of Seoul...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: He's taking us to the bears.

HU: ...You can find a bear bile farm, one of 39 sprinkled across the country. Here, farmer Kim Kwang-su keeps 230 moon bears. He breeds them and cages them for the legal minimum of 10 years. Then they're slaughtered for their gallbladders. In East Asia, bear bile is believed to solve a host of health problems from hangovers to heart disease.

Do they have much of a quality of life, then, if they're sort of living in these cages for 10 years, waiting to die?

KIM KWANG-SU: (Speaking Korean).

HU: "It's true we don't have play facilities for the bears," Kim says. "But in South Korea right now, almost all these bears are kept in cages." A century ago, moon bears roamed freely in the mountains of Korea. But bear bile became such a sought-after traditional medicine that today, the bears have been captured and farmed to near-extinction.

JILL ROBINSON: The way that these bears are farmed is particularly cruel.

HU: Jill Robinson is a veterinarian and the head of Animals Asia foundation. She first visited a bear bile farm in 1993.

ROBINSON: Cages and cages all around me with bears with the most miserable faces with six-inch catheters protruding from their abdomens, their teeth cut back, their paw tips cut back so that the claws couldn't grow and hurt the farmers as they were extracting the bile.

HU: Since then, South Korea has banned the practice of milking bears for bile while they are alive. But the animals are still living in captivity until they're killed. The bear farmer, Kim, says he has come to enjoy the bears he keeps. But for his business to survive, he slaughters them. He has no other livelihood.

KIM: (Speaking Korean).

HU: "It hurts. It hurts me. I don't even look at them when they're being slaughtered," he says. "I mean, you're not a human being if you're not sad about it." Which underlines the gulf between what's happening to the actual Asiatic black bears and the cartoon cute character of next year's Olympic mascot. While moon bear mascot Bandabi glides his way down animated mountains in promo videos, the inspiration for Bandabi spend their days banging their heads against their cages. Jill Robinson.

ROBINSON: I just really hope that the Korean government does make that connection and finally gives the - this incredible species of bear the freedom that they deserve.

HU: Demand for bear bile has collapsed recently, which led to the closure of many farms already. But nearly 800 moon bears still live in caged limbo in their home country. Elise Hu, NPR News, Dangjin, South Korea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.