Proposed Bill Hopes to Protect North American Black Bears from Poaching for Asian Markets - Before It’s Too Late

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Proposed Bill Hopes to Protect North American Black Bears from Poaching for Asian Markets - Before It’s Too Late

[Ed. Note: Take action here Help Stop Killing of Black Bears for Their Organs]

August 2009

With commercial trade prohibited for Asian bears, poachers are now turning to the North American black bear for the harvesting of their gallbladders.

Commercialization of wildlife has been a contributing factor in the reduction and loss of many wildlife species.

In an effort to protect North American black bears, a proposed bill hopes to prevent a dramatic decline in black bear populations by banning any import, export, or interstate commerce in U.S. bear organs and fluids. The Bear Protection Act has been reintroduced by U.S. Representatives Raul M. Grijalva, Democrat from Arizona, and John Campbell, Republican from California. An earlier law in 2000 and 2001 - similar to the new act - passed the U.S. Senate, but did not pass the House.

This legislation is meant to counteract the inconsistent laws that currently make illegal trade in bear parts relatively easy by creating loopholes for would-be entrepreneurs hoping to cash in on the lucrative Chinese market for bear gallbladders and other parts.

In a National Geographic article, Adam Roberts, vice president of the animal-advocacy nonprofit Born Free USA, notes that 34 states ban trade in bear gallbladders and bile - but there are five states that do not. Trade in bear gallbladders and bile is allowed freely in Maine, Vermont, Idaho, Wyoming, and New York.

The majority of states have already banned the trade because they realized that commercialization of wildlife parts leads to poaching. The handful that allow the trade serve as laundering points for bear gallbladders taken elsewhere.

Poaching for “traditional Chinese medicine” is already responsible for decimating wildlife populations in Asia and Africa. Acting now to save bears could prevent global catastrophes, such as the decline in wild tiger population from 100,000 to approximately 4,000 in 100 years, and the decline in wild black rhino population from 65,000 to a low of approximately 2,300 in just 25 years.

Long-term survival of black bear populations

In the new book by Dr. Laurel Neme, Animal Investigators: How the World’s First Wildlife Forensics Lab is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species, a detailed account is given of the events leading to the conviction of Sang Ho Kim for bear gallbladder trafficking in Canada, finding him guilty of 11 of 12 counts against him.

Part of the evidence was a written submission - Comments on the Trade in Bears and Bear Parts - by Chris Servheen, FWS’s Grizzly Bear Recovery coordinator and co-chair of the World Conservation Union’s Species Survival Commission (IUCN/SSC) Bear Specialist Group, in which he stated:

Commercialization of wildlife has been a contributing factor in the reduction and loss of many wildlife species.

According to Dr. Neme, Crown Counsel Jim MacAuley pointed out that in North America, populations of duck, egrets, and beavers were decimated by unregulated commercial activity - and bison were also nearly extinct when tens of millions were slaughtered. And we are currently witnessing what may become a mass extinction in the wild for tigers, rhinos, and elephants - all to satisfy the illegal markets in Asia.

Although at the time of the trial (1996), Canada’s black bear population was “healthy”, MacAuley reasoned that if commercialization of bear parts was allowed, the bear population would suffer a drastic decline.

With wild Asian bears estimated to decline by 20 percent over the next decade, North America would soon become one of the only places in the world where wild bear gallbladders could be collected … Given the enormous number of users of traditional Chinese medicine worldwide, demand would continue to fuel the illegal bear parts trade unless both law enforcement and legal penalties were stepped up to limit it.

This case was also remarkable in that it resulted in the adoption of a law that made it illegal to possess, import, or sell bear gallbladders and their derivatives.

… by conforming to the same law as its neighbors, the province removed a legal loophole for smugglers and eliminated its allure as a safe haven for dealers.

Are some state officials shortsighted?

Apparently, there are bear experts who do not see the growing commercialization of bear parts as a potential threat to the North American black bear population - and even some state officials who say they have enough bears to support a “sustainable trade”.

Also quoted in the National Geographic article is Dave Garshelis, a bear biologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and co-chair of the IUCN’s Bear Specialist Group. He says that the global bear parts trade is insignificant in North America.

He claims that nearly 50,000 black bears are killed legally in North America each year, and does not see poaching as a problem:

And occasional stings might find a dozen poached bears or something like that. Something like 20,000 black bears have been [fitted with radio collars] across North America, yet reports of poaching are rare.

Colonel David LeCours, director of law enforcement for the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department in Waterbury, says that Vermont’s bear population is “exploding” and he says there is no need to alter its laws. He says that because Vermont investigators found “only a few” gallbladders made it to market, there is not a problem:

Now, if the only purpose that an animal was being harvested for is for commercial reasons, then we’d have to reassess that. But there is nothing to suggest that this has happened.

China’s bear farms - “sustainable trade”?

So why can’t bears be raised for “sustainable trade” in bear bile and other bear parts? Actually, they are - in China.

Based on the publication The Asian Trade in Bears and Bear Parts by Judy A. Mills and Christopher Servheen, Dr. Neme states in her book that:

In what it claimed was an effort to stop the poaching of Asian black bears, China opened its first bile milking operations in 1984 … and these bears are now among the thirty wild species (including tigers) bred, caught, and kept in captivity for their use in traditional Chinese medicine.

A chilling account of a “bear farm” encounter by Jill Robinson, Animals Asia’s Founder and CEO, while investigating the practice on behalf of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) is described:

Robinson was horrified when the visitors teased the bears with fruit hung on fishing poles and laughed at the melee as the animals fought over the pitiful morsels … rows and rows of tiny cages, which would eventually become coffins for their moon bear prisoners, lined the dimly lit basement … Rusting catheters protruded fro gaping wounds in the bears’ bellies, and blood, pus, and bile seeped from the holes. Their canine teeth had been cut back. Many had three- to four-foot scars along their bodies or head wounds from bashing themselves again the bars in feeble attempts at mental stimulation. Some had missing paws.

These “bear farms” - nothing more than government-sanctioned torture chambers - make bear bile affordable to more people: Therefore, bear farms actually stimulate the market for bear bile.

While noble rescue efforts are in place for China’s bear farm prisoners - and have thankfully rescued some of the bears - the deplorable practice still continues under the auspices of being “phased out.”

An ounce of prevention

If the demand for elephant ivory and rhinoceros horn has lured poachers to Africa, then the demand for bear parts will surely attract these criminals to North America.

Putting uniform legislation in place now - to protect North American bear populations from the fate of tigers, rhinos, and elephants - is a step that must be taken.

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