Interdisciplinary Minor in Global Sustainability
Senior Seminar
University of California, Irvine June 1997 


by Duc Nguyen

Global Sustainability 2-4-97

The illegal killing and trafficking of animal parts has long been a global concern. With trading at an estimated 6 billion dollars annually, poaching has become the world’s second most profitable crime activity behind illegal drug trade. In its prevalence, poaching has driven many species to the point of extinction.

Animals around the world are killed each day for their body parts. In Africa, elephant tusks are a valuable source of ivory used in jewelry. Moreover, the horns of rhinoceros could command up to $5,000 in the black market. The mothers of newborn mountain gorillas are often killed so that their young ones could be shipped to foreign countries for research or display. Tropical birds become a rarity in their native lands because they sold as pets. These are just a few examples of the maltreatment of animals globally.

In response, many nations came together to participate in a UN sponsored Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). In short, CITES prohibits the international trade of species threatened with extinction. However, the trade of species that may become endangered are only regulated by a permit. While it has lessened the killing of endangered species, CITES has done little to protect others such as black bears that are threatened with endangerment.

Bear parts are especially in high demand around the world. For thousands of years, bear parts have been used as cures in traditional Chinese medicine. Nearly every part of the bear has medicinal use. In Korea, bear paws have been considered an exotic delicacy reserved only for the elite since the ancient dynasties. Today, a bowl of bear paw soup can cost as much as $1,000. By far, however, the gall bladder is the bear’s most valuable part. In traditional Chinese medicine, bile and galls are used as remedies for an array of illnesses such as fever, swelling, cancers, burns, internal bleeding, ulcers, pain, heart and liver disease. A known compound found in bile, ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), has been used in western medicine to treat liver disorders. A gall can command up to $10,000 in east Asia. Its price is about 20 times the street price of cocaine per ounce. Globally, the market in bear parts is estimated at $2 billion.

For obvious reasons, bears have become increasingly rare. Five of the eight bear species in the world are endangered. In Korea, where they were ounce abundant, black bears are virtually extinct now with a population between 20 to 300. The population of bears in Russia is dwindling rapidly as a result of gall trafficking by the Russian Mafia. Bear populations have decreased to the point that China is now using bear farms to obtain gall. Bears are kept cruelly in small cages that are often fitted to their body so that they cannot move. A steel catheter surgically implanted to their gall bladder removes bile from their bodies daily. However, instead of saving bears as claimed, bear farms have only instigated poaching by increasing demands for gall.

As bear populations decreased in Asia, more traffickers turned to North America where there are a considerable number of bears. Although poaching also occurs in the United States, the problem appears to be worse in Canada. This may be attributed to less stringent punishments for poaching and trading of bear parts.

In Canada, it is legal to hunt black bears. A permit to hunt black bears costs about $15 and a licensed hunter is allowed to kill up to 2 black bears each year. Initially, it was also legal to trade bear parts as long as it was conducted by a licensed fur trader and exported with a permit. The attempt to regulate the trade market proved to be futile, however, as the number of illegal trades far surpassed that of legal ones.

There are many incentives to obtain and trade bear parts illegally. Given their small size, galls and paws could easily be smuggled across borders without much hindrance. In addition, there is a greater profit to be made by avoiding taxes as well as import and export duties. Naturally, the large forests and the low population density of Canada greatly reduces the risk of illegally killing bears. Even if caught, poachers only face a few months in jail and a fine small in comparison to their profits.

In response, provinces such as British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Alberta, Yukon, New Brunswick, New Foundland and Manitoba have outlawed the trade of bear galls and paws altogether. Not to be deterred, the illegal bear parts trade has developed a network consisting of three levels: the shooters, the suppliers and the traffickers. Shooters consists of legal hunters and poachers. It is estimated that 40,000 black bears are killed legally each year and just as many illegally. The bears are typically killed with hunting dogs or by baiting. Many hunters equip their dogs with hi-tech radio collars that allow them to follow the dogs as they search for bears by scent. Others lure the bears to "bait sites" by luring them with meat, pastries and other foods. The suppliers are the middlemen in this business. Often, they are guides and outfitters who arrange hunts and take galls of the kills as tips. The suppliers then sell to traffickers who smuggle them out of the country. Gall traffickers are generally individuals, retailers, organized criminals or major dealers.

Bear parts smuggled out of North America usually end up in Asia where they are sold in pharmacies and restaurants. With its native supply nonexistent and more consumers willing to pay, South Korea is considered the world’s largest market for imported bear parts. Not far behind, however, are Hong Kong, China and Japan. Because of economic growth experienced in Asia, it is expected that the demand for bear parts will only increase in the future.

Many ideas have been proposed to save the black bears. For example, gall from domesticated species such as cows, pigs and goats can be substituted for bear gall. In addition, commercially synthesized UDCA or herbal products could also be used in place of bear gall. Perhaps tougher laws could be passed to prevent poaching. Increased punishment in the form of greater fines or longer jail terms would deter many would-be poachers. Globally, an international ban on trade in bear parts may help alleviate the problem. If nothing else works, maybe the hunting of black bears should be outlawed altogether. Whatever they may be, steps to prevent the poaching of black bears are necessary to prevent them from becoming an endangered specie teetering on the brink of extinction.


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