Year of the Bear


by Adam Roberts

Bear Protection Act Reintroduced in Congress
"I, for one, will not stand by andallow our own bear populations to be decimated by poachers."

As readers of the AWI Quarterly know well, North American blackbears are under increased threat from poachers, smugglers and dealers whoexploit these magnificent creatures to supply the lucrative trade in bearparts and products.

Specifically, bear gallbladders and bile are used in Traditional ChineseMedicine (TCM) to treat maladies ranging from delirium to hemorrhoids andare now also used in high-priced cosmetics such as shampoo.

As Asiatic black bear populations have been decimated for the bear partstrade, unscrupulous profiteers have set their sights on America's viablebear population. Federal legislation is sorely needed to create a uniformlegal framework protecting American bears from this threat.

On February 5, 1997, Senator Mitch McConnell (R,KY) introduced "TheBear Protection Act" (BPA) in the US Senate (S 263). As of April 30there were 31 co-sponsors of this bipartisan bill. Simultaneously, CongressmanJohn Porter (R,IL) introduced identical legislation (HR 619) in the Houseof Representatives—also a bipartisan effort with over 60 co-sponsors.

Both versions of the bill

  • Make it illegal to import into or export from the US bear viscera [thebody fluids or internal organs, including the gallbladder] or productsthat contain or claim to contain bear viscera;
  • Make it illegal for a person to sell, barter, offer to sell or barter,purchase, or possess with intent to sell or barter, in interstate or foreigncommerce, bear viscera or products that contain or claim to contain bearviscera;
  • Authorize the imposition of civil and criminal penalties as high as$20,000 and up to 5 years in prison per violation pursuant to the US LaceyAct of 1981; and
  • Promote international cooperation to protect bears by instructing theUnited States Trade Representative and the Secretary of the Interior toconsult with representatives of the leading importing, exporting, and consumingcountries in an effort to establish a coordinated strategy to end thisdetrimental trade.

Notably, the BPA will not usurp states' authority for managing residentbear populations or preempt strong state laws that already prohibit commercializationof bear parts. The purpose of the bill is to ensure that the United Statesdoes not contribute to the disastrous trade in bear parts. It prohibitsimportation of products from endan-gered Asian bears, closes the loopholescreated by the current patchwork of state laws, and upholds America's internationaltreaty obligations under the Convention on International Trade in EndangeredSpecies of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

This legislation will help maintain a healthy American bear populationand will send a message to poachers, smugglers and consumers the worldover that the US will not tolerate an attack on our bears and will notparticipate in this horrible black market trade. As Senator McConnell noted,"Although we cannot restore the numbers we once had, we can insurethat the remaining bears are not sold for profit to the highest bidder."

Pelly Petition Against South Korea Submitted toInterior Secretary Babbitt
According to a South Korean tour guide,"of the 360,000 South Koreans who traveled to Thailand in 1995, approximately30,000 consumed bear and/or bear parts while in the country.... Touristspay from US$7,500 to US$9,000 for a live bear. The bear is then drowned,its gallbladder removed, and its meat and paws consumed."

The day following Congressional introduction of the Bear ProtectionAct, 133 organizations throughout the country jointly sent a letter toSecretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt requesting that South Korea becertified under the Pelly Amendment to the Fisherman's Protective Act of1967 for its continuing role in the global bear parts trade. Such certificationenables the President to impose economic sanctions against South Korea,much like those imposed on Taiwan for its leading role in the trade inparts and products of endangered tigers and rhinos. South Korea is currentlyundermining the effective implementation of existing bear protection underCITES, which it joined in 1993.

Although only a handful of Asiatic black bears (Ursus thibetanus)remains in South Korea, domestic demand for bear products appears insatiable.Bear parts consumption in Asian countries—such as South Korea—threatensnot only the few remaining indigenous South Korean bears, but all otherbear species throughout the world, including American black bears (Ursusamericanus), whose gall bladders are virtually indistinguishable onceremoved from the animal.

The Pelly petition, filed by the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, Inc.,contains revelations of South Korean abuses of CITES regulations intendedto protect various bear species. The petition notes that "there havenever been any seizures or prosecutions of bear gall smuggling in SouthKorea. In this vacuum of official acknowledgment and action, South Koreanscontinue to consume bears at an alarming pace."

The Petition cites many specific, illegal acts driven by the demandfor gall bladders, bile, paws and meat including:

  • "the smuggling out of Thailand of thirty bears for consumptionby South Korean athletes for the 1988 Olympic Games."
  • "An employee of Korean Airlines who concealed and transportedbear gallbladders and even whole bear carcasses into South Korea statedthat he was able to get the bear parts into the country by bribing customsofficials."
  • "The president of Seoyung Trading Company, based in South Korea,has stated, 'When I am sick, I go to the USA for bear and watch it killedmyself.'"

There is no justification for permitting a country whose citizens engagein such repeated, egregious circumventions of international conservationagreements to go unpunished. At the very least, Pelly certification bythe Secretary of the Interior will let the South Korean government andothers throughout the world know that the United States takes its obligationsunder CITES seriously and will not tolerate violation by other nationsor their citizens. Strong action by the United States against South Koreafor its flouting of the Convention will lay the framework for further achievementsin bear protection at the upcoming CITES Conference of the Parties thissummer in Zimbabwe.

Bear Protection on the Agenda at June CITES Meeting
"Impacts (on brown bear populations)are likely to increase as high prices continue to provide an incentiveto poach bears, and as access to bear habitat increases."

Following due consideration at both the CITES Animals Committee andStanding Committee meetings last year, the subject of the illegal globaltrade in bear parts and products has been officially listed on the agendafor the upcoming tenth CITES Conference of the Parties (see "CITESTakes an Important First Step to Help Bears," AWI Quarterly,Fall 1996). It is AWI's hope that the United States CITES Delegation willjoin China in calling for passage of a resolution declaring a global moratoriumon the trade in bear parts of all bear species, particularly the wildlyprofitable gall bladders. Such action will play a tremendous role in endingthe threat to the world's bears from the commercialization of their valuableparts.

Additional specific attention to the plight of brown bears (Ursusarctos) has been brought to the attention of CITES delegates in separateproposals submitted to the CITES Secretariat by Finland, with the supportof Bulgaria and Jordan. These submissions seek to raise the level of protectionafforded all remaining populations of brown bears (excluding North America)from Appendix II to Appendix I, thus preventing trade in brown bear parts.This action is another effort to reduce problems associated with the visualsimilarity of brown bear parts such as the gall bladder with similar organsof other endangered and threatened bear species.

Adoption of the proposal will add an essential level of protection tothe dwindling populations of brown bears throughout Europe, Asia, and theformer Soviet Union, and hopefully will be passed expeditiously.

Brown bear range disbursement is extremely diverse, occurring in small pockets of land throughout Asia,Europe and North America. As human populations continue to grow, brownbear populations become increasingly fragmented and fragile. Further, worldwidedeforestation, especially throughout Turkey, Russia and surrounding rangelands,has restricted available suitable habitat for brown bears.

The brown bear is already extinct in many European countries, and populationstatus reports indicate no more than 110,000 to 120,000 brown bears inhabitthe Eastern Hemisphere. As brown bear numbers vary from country to country,so, too, does the level of protection each population receives. Accordingto Finland's proposal, in France, Poland, the Ukraine and other countriesthe species is "fully protected," while Romania allows bear hunts"under special license, but only in season." Japan, with an unknownbut "increasingly isolated sub-population" of brown bears, maintainsminimal legal protection and permits bear hunts "for sport and asa pest."

Finland's proposal notes that "poaching of brown bear and illegaltrade in bear parts is at its most severe in the Russian Far East"and that "the Russian Mafia is heavily involved in the illegal wildlifetrade." The Eastern Hemispheric illegal bear parts trade embodiesa complex smuggling web where: "illegally imported hunting trophiesfrom Romanian bears have been seized in Spain," "German sporthunters circumvent domestic legislation prohibiting the import of trophiesfrom Romanian bears by passing them through Russia first," and "illegaltrade into Greece provides an opening into the whole EU [European Union]."

It is important that CITES delegates support proactive measures in accordancewith the "precautionary principle" and recognize the danger brownbears face from these intricate and extensive poaching and smuggling operations.As the proposal acknowledges: "To the poacher, it does not matterwhich species of bear is hunted... if traders are found with galls from[endangered Asiatic] black bears, they merely claim that they are frombrown bears." An Appendix I listing will not only directly benefitbrown bears, but also highly endangered bear species* whose gallbladders,as mentioned above, are visually indistinguishable from those of brownbears and are illegally laundered as such.

Preemptive measures such as the BPA, South Korean Pelly certification,and appropriate action by CITES Parties will provide incalculable benefitsto help stabilize all bear populations so they can survive for generationsto come.

*Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus), sun bear (Helarctosmalayanus), spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus), and slothbear (Melursus ursinus).

AWI Quarterly Winter 1997, Volume 46 Number 1, p. 6-7.

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