Bile is extracted for its healing powers and ending the practice means the rare Asiatic black bears will be freed from a life trapped in tiny cages, Huang Jian Hua of the China Wildlife Conservation Association said.
The 500 are among 7,000 captive bears on 247 bear bile farms in China, Huang said.
Bear bile has been harvested for thousands of years in Asia and is believed to be useful in treating fever, liver illnesses and sore eyes. Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners say there are herbs that serve the same purposes as bear bile.
Huang said China's move underscored the urgent need to help other endangered bears held in Asian countries such as South Korea and Vietnam.
Under an agreement between China and Hong Kong-based Animals Asia Foundation (AAF), 500 captive bears in China's central Sichuan province will be rehabilitated and placed in a sanctuary in Ziyang city over the next five years, Huang said.
"As one can expect, the living conditions in these farms are often disturbing. Therefore there is a pressing need for us to rescue the bears from these farms," Huang told reporters.
The program will be extended to other parts of China over the next 10 years.
Caged for life
The practice came to light in 1993 after AAF founder Jill Robinson found bears incarcerated in tiny cages in bear bile farms in China's Sichuan province. The bears had been there since they were cubs.
Many were lying stomach down in cages barely high enough for them to raise their heads and spent their waking hours biting the iron grills or banging their heads against them.
Surgically implanted with catheters, the bears are kept in the prone position so bile can be extracted twice a day, 50 milliliters each time.
In a recent officially sanctioned visit to 11 bear farms in Sichuan, Robinson saw bears kept in cages with punch holes instead of iron grills.
"It's a lifetime of confinement and pain, one had lived like that for 21 years," Robinson told Reuters.
Once a lucrative business
Bear bile, long harvested in Asia for traditional medical uses, finds its way into Chinese products like these
Bear bile farms began in the 1980s in Asia after North Korea developed the method of bile tapping with catheters.
China quickly adopted the practice thinking it would reduce the number of bears killed in the wild for their bile.
The industry in China mushroomed in the early 1990s when the number of captive bears hit 10,000 in 480 bear farms.
It was also then that bear bile prices rocketed to $2,418 per kilogram. With the advent of synthetic bear bile and greater awareness of the inhumane method of harvesting, the price has since plunged.
Chinese farmers, who blame the low prices for their ill-kept animals, will be given retraining after they give up their farms. More responsible farmers will be given compensation, Huang said.