images/voice_uploads/Black-Bear.gif">The American black bear is one of the most beloved icons of the southern Appalachian wilderness, and seeing one in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park or in Shenandoah National Park is often listed as a top priority among surveyed visitors. Both national parks as well as the areas that surround them continue to maintain healthy bear populations, but that is a trend that could start to change with the growing domestic and international trade in black bear parts.
“It has been a problem in Virginia for at least 25 years,” says Col. Herb Foster with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), “but the domestic market, primarily in the Asian community, is growing because the American Asian community is growing.”
Black bear parts have been a central part of traditional Chinese medicine for centuries. Black bear gall bladders are particularly coveted and, when ground and sold by the gram, draw a higher price on the street than cocaine. Bear galls are used in Asian medicine to treat cancer, burns, asthma, respiratory problems, diabetes, and stomach and liver disorders. The gall’s bile is believed to be a general cure-all, and a gall can sell for as much as $3,000. Bear paws are also a popular commodity in Asian black markets and considered a delicacy when used in soup that can sell for as much as $1,000 a bowl in Asia.
Trading in black bear parts is illegal in Virginia and many other states, and federal law prohibits trade in wildlife and plants across state lines if those resources are “taken in violation of any state law.” But as bear populations in Asia have been hunted almost to the point of extinction, poachers and buyers are increasingly focusing their attention on the American black bear.
“The U.S. is one of the only countries in the world now with a healthy bear population,” says Special Agent Bob Kreiling with Shenandoah National Park. “That’s why Asia is looking at our bears. Unless the demand for them is tempered, this illegal trade is going to become more and more of a problem.”
In January, the VDGIF and National Park Service cracked down on the illegal bear trafficking in and around Shenandoah National Park with charges against over 100 individuals following a multi-year sting known as Operation VIPER (Virginia Interagency Effort to Protect Environmental Resources). An undercover agent operating a sporting goods store in Rockingham County, Virginia, which adjoins Shenandoah National Park on the west, bought and sold black bears and ginseng roots, allowing the two cooperating agencies to infiltrate the illegal bear parts market.
The VDGIF reports that 487 state violations were documented as well as 204 federal violations involving individuals in seven states, Washington, D.C., and in South Korea. Some of the individuals indicted could face felony charges, drawing up to five years in jail and thousands of dollars in fines.
“Operation VIPER dealt with the suppliers and consumers,” explains Col. Foster, “whereas Operation SOUP, a sting operation completed in 1999, focused on poachers. We were trying to put a dent in the consumer market. It’s just as illegal to buy bear parts as to poach them.”
While it’s perfectly legal to hunt bears in Virginia during regular hunting season, it is not legal to hunt bears in Shenandoah National Park, where a number of the illegally traded bear parts were originating. And it is not legal to trade in black bear parts in Virginia regardless of where or when the bear was killed.
Park ranger Nancy Gray with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park says park personnel in North Carolina and Tennessee are not aware of an extensive poaching or illegal black bear parts trade occurring there. “While we probably apprehend and prosecute two to three cases a year dealing with bear poaching, there’s definitely evidence that poaching exists in the park.” How extensive poaching is, she doesn’t know. “This activity is more than what our resources can provide to apprehend poachers.”
Unlike the narrow borders of Shenandoah National Park, the Smokies cover a vast wilderness area of over 500,000 acres, much of it backcountry. Gray says some of the poachers apprehended in the park have been connected to the illegal black bear parts trade. “The type of poachers are changing,” she says. “They’re poaching to gain money to purchase drugs.”
Lt. Mike Stephens with the North Carolina Game Commission’s Enforcement Division in Robbinsville says he feels the black market trade in bear parts has decreased significantly in North Carolina since Operation Smoky, a sting conducted 16 years ago which apprehended more than 40 individuals involved in illegal trafficking. Among those arrested was a prominent physician in Sylva who was selling bear parts to Korea.
“We have a better handle on the situation now,” Stephens says. “Operation Smoky really opened our eyes.” It also resulted in stiffer penalties for those who participate in illegal bear parts trafficking, including a minimum $2,000 fine for illegally taking bears plus forfeiture of any property used in poaching or trading. Violators will also lose their hunting licenses for two years. “When you get into people’s pocketbooks, they become more cautious,” Stephens says.
“What really hurts us is other states allowing the sale of black bear parts if taken legally,” he adds. “Anytime one state allows something another doesn’t, it creates loopholes. I would like to see a nationwide ban on the commercialization of wildlife.”
West Virginia is among the states allowing trade in gall bladders from both legally killed resident and nonresident bears. That can create problems for neighboring states, like Virginia.
“If they get some major convictions in Virginia with this most recent sting operation,” says Stephens, “I think it will curtail the trade some.”
Rockingham County, Virginia’s Commonwealth’s Attorney Marsh Garst certainly hopes so. “We don’t want to have to go to the zoo to see bears,” she says. “Operation VIPER has created awareness, so people know we’re not taking a cavalier attitude. Park wardens are policing the area.” Many of the individuals indicted in Operation VIPER will be going to trial in April and May.
“This is not something that’s going to end with the investigation,” says Shenandoah’s Kreiling. “Rangers are doing patrol, and this is going to be an ongoing priority. Our guiding mission here is to protect the resource.”
Col. Foster says the illegal trade in black bear parts is a major priority of Virginia’s Game Department. “We have a special team that has focused on identifying bait sites,” he says. “We’re focusing more attention on it than we ever have previously, so we can maintain a viable population of black bears in Virginia.”
“It’s not a problem that’s unique to Virginia, however,” he adds. “I think it’s a universal problem anywhere there’s a healthy bear population.”
Foster says the biggest problem his department faces is the lack of officers to perform patrols. “Typically we only have one officer per county,” he says. Despite the shortage in personnel, the VDGIF has identified almost 100 bait sites in 20 counties and has established a partnership with the Virginia Bear Hunters Association.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, black market trade in wildlife and wild plants is a $20 billion dollar a year industry. “I honestly believe if we didn’t have the laws in place that we do and the support of sportsmen,” says Foster, “that we would be facing the same future as Asia. In history, when wildlife has been commercially marketed, it’s been nearly wiped out.”