Bear Poachers Busted as Congress Considers Federal Bear Bill

"At the heart of Operation SOUP areconcerns about an international problem that has a toehold inVirginia. The bear gall bladder trade is a worldwide industrydriven by the demand for its use in traditional Asian medicine....The serious decline in the Asian black bear population has ledto the American black bear being targeted for this trade."
- Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries

by Adam Roberts

In 1998 alone, cases concerning bear poaching and the partstrade surfaced from coast to coast across America: arrests madein a number of states including Washington, Oregon, California,Utah, and Maryland. Unfortunately, 1999 began right where theprevious year had left off. In January, a huge bust was made asa result of a three-year joint undercover operation by the VirginiaDepartment of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) and the US Fishand Wildlife Service into illegal bear hunting and commercializationof black bear parts.

"Operation SOUP" (Special Operation to Uncover Poaching)has resulted in the arrests of over two dozen individuals formore than 110 wildlife violations. Accordingto the VDGIF, this "is expected to yield one of the largestprosecutions in the nation's history relating to bear poachingand illegal trade in bear parts." The Department not onlyinvestigated the sale of bear claws and teeth used in the jewelrytrade, but also the trafficking in bear gallbladders and frozenpaws. VDGIF's conclusion: "This aspect of the investigationhas confirmed that significant trade ingall bladders and bear paws out of Virginia exists, includingbears from within and around Shenandoah National Park."

High praise should go out to the dedicated state and federal wildlifelaw enforcement officers who broke up this unscrupulous ring ofbear poachers and wildlife traders.

As readers of the AWI Quarterly know, bears worldwideare targeted for their gallbladders and bile which can fetch exorbitantprices on the black market in Asia and Asian communities acrossthe United States. A significant international effort is underway,spearheaded by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW)and the Animals Asia Foundation (AAF), to encourage the traditionalmedicine community to promote and exclusively use ingredientsin their medicinal remedies which are not derived from threatenedor endangered animals including any of the eight remaining bearspecies.

According to IFAW and AAF, many traditional medicine practitionersand proponents have already come to this conclusion. Dr.Ho Ka Cheong, President of the Hong Kong Chinese Herbalist Associationclaims: "Herbal alternatives have the same effect –so why use animals?" Dr. Sun Ji Xian of the Chinese Associationof Preventative Medicine in Beijing, China contends: "I choosenot to use bear bile and go to the trouble of replacing it, becauseI believe animals should not suffer."

However, one must address the supply side of the equation aswell as the demand. Part of the problem in the United States,for example, is that some states prohibit sale of bear parts,others allow it, and still others allow sale as long as the bearwas killed somewhere else. This creates an incentive to poachbears in one state, smuggle the gallbladders and bile to a statewhere such sale is legal or to another country, and sell the bearparts (or products derived from them) under false pretenses.

Although the facts in the Operation SOUP case are still unfolding, it is likely that the alleged perpetrators were attempting toexploit this existing "patchwork" of state laws. Accordingto the Richmond Times-Dispatch, a Virginia newspaper, theaccused come from Virginia, West Virginia, and New Mexico. WhileVirginia and New Mexico prohibit commercialization of bear parts,West Virginia does not; this may be all the incentive that poachersand dealers need to take Virginia bears illegally and attemptto sell their parts by laundering them through a neighboring statesuch as West Virginia.

One way to close this enforcement loophole and protect bearsfrom being decimated to supply the global bear parts trade isa uniform prohibition on commercialization of bear parts nationwide.Such legislation, the "Bear Protection Act," was introducedin the US Senate on May 24, 1999 by Senator Mitch McConnell (R,KY). A House version to be sponsored by Congressman John Porter(R, IL) is expected soon. The Senate bill, S.1109, was introducedwith a remarkable bipartisan list of 40 original cosponsors. Onereason for Senator McConnell's interest in this vital conservationlegislation is that, in his words, "We cannot stand by andallow our own bear population to be decimated by poachers."

The Bear Protection Act simply would prohibit the import, export,and interstate commerce in bear gallbladders and bile as wellas products that contain, or claim to contain, such bear viscera.Not only would passage of the bill help facilitate wildlife lawenforcement here in the United States, but it would also enablethe US to continue its leadership role in the global conservationcommunity.

At the most recent meeting of the Standing Committee to theConvention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the CITES Secretariatpresented a discussion paper on bears. The document specificallyreferred to the existing legislative loopholes in many bear rangestates and consuming countries:

"The Secretariat believes that opportunities exist forconfusion by some Parties where internal trade controls are weakerthan import or export controls. In a similar manner, differencesin national, federal, state or provincial laws allow for confusionand enforcement difficulties, for example, where bear gallbladders trade is permitted on a domestic market but import orexport is banned. Although this is essentially a domestic issuefor Parties, it undoubtedly contributes to the availability ofspecimens that can subsequently reach international trade."(emphasis added)

The Bear Protection Act's uniform prohibition on import, exportand internal interstate commerce would help all Parties avoidthis enforcement confusion. Hopefully, with passage of the bill,potential poachers and smugglers will be dissuaded from attemptingto poach bears and illegally commercialize bear parts.

Until then, it's good to know that state fish and game departmentssuch as the one in Virginia are determined participants in theeffort to bring unethical wildlife traffickers to justice. WilliamWoodfin, VDGIF Director, had it exactly right when he toldThe Washington Post: "If you don't watch this situation,and keep your finger on the pulse, you can quickly look at itand say, 'Where did [the bears] all go?' We have an obligationto future generations to make sure the black bear will be herefor them to enjoy.


- February 27, 1999

  Save Virginia's Bears
THE THOUGHT of human predators, also known as poachers, operating in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains ought to be enough to mobilize wildlife lovers, guardians of the nation's forests and people who want nature's treasures preserved for future generations. This time the poachers' trophy is the black bear. They are hunting down this sometimes large, mostly shy creature for the worst of reasons: to serve a predominantly foreign market interested not in the bear's meat or fur but its claws, paws and gallbladder.
Even as unrestrained hunting and spreading development are decimating bear populations in other parts of the world, poachers – working through hustlers or middlemen – have set their sights on North America to supply Asian markets, where bear parts can fetch thousands of dollars. And what better state to target than Virginia, where it is legal to hunt and kill bears. It matters not that the black bear – unlike its grizzly and polar counterpart – cares little for human
confrontation. Virginia's bears are beingbagged and whacked to pieces big time.
Law enforcement officials seized about 300 gallbladders and arrested 25 people in the most recent investigation, The Post reported this week. Meanwhile, the bears continue to be hunted and trapped by sneak thieves eager to cash in on illicit trafficking of organs prized as medicinal remedies in some Asian cultures. The medicinal trade in wild animals and plants already has endangered several species around the globe. Without a law prohibiting bear hunting, as in Maryland, and without increased vigilance and enforcement of a state law halting the sale of a bear's body parts, as in Virginia and most states, the American black bear will be added to that list.
Virginia wildlife officials and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should be given the resources, including trained staff, to wage aggressive war against poachers. The black bear is a treasure. Too strong a word? Imagine if all the bears were gone.

AWI Quarterly, Spring 1999, Vol. 48, No.2 p. 8-9

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