By Tan Cheng Li
Cute and cuddly they may be, but bears have not escaped the claws of poachers.
The illegal trade in bears and their body parts is rife across Asia, with as many as 2,801 bears either trapped or slaughtered over a 12-year period to feed demand.
Researchers at Traffic, the body which monitors trade in wildlife, arrived at that figure after analysing 694 bear-related seizures reported in 17 countries and territories between 2000 and 2011.
The seizures were mostly from Cambodia (190 cases), China (145), Vietnam (102), Russia (59), Malaysia (38), Thailand (29), Laos (29) and India (23).
The trade involved not only live bears – trapped to stock bear bile extraction farms and the pet or dancing bear trade – but also bear body parts and derivatives such as meat, skins, skulls, paws, bones, claws, teeth, gall bladders and bear bile, according to the report Bring To Bear: An Analysis Of Seizures Across Asia (2000–2011).
The authors Elizabeth A. Burgess, Sarah S. Stoner and Kaitlyn-Elizabeth Foley found all four species of bears in Asia being traded: Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus), sun bear (Helarctos malayanus), sloth bear (Melursus ursinus), and brown bear (Ursus arctos).
Under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), all international commerce in bear parts and products is illegal.
Russia and China accounted for 69% of the trade volume – equating to the slaughter of an estimated 1,934 bears. High seizure volumes were also recorded in Vietnam (an estimated 279 bears), Cambodia (253), Malaysia (98), India (53) and Thailand (50).
“We’re shocked to see the trade is as widespread as it is. It is persisting and ‘healthy’ and poses a major threat to the existence of wild bears. The illicit nature of the trade also means that the volumes of trade reported in this study are likely to represent only a fraction of the actual number of bears and bear parts being trafficked around the world,” says Dr Chris R. Shepherd, regional director of Traffic in South-East Asia.
All chopped up
Bear paws were the most sought-after product. A staggering 6,624 paws were seized during the 12-year period. An estimated 1,657 bears, mostly from Russia, were believed to be killed for them. The bears were likely wild-caught since Russia has no bear breeding facilities. The paws were mostly seized at border towns between Russia and China, suggesting a prolific trade in bears between the two countries.
Live bears were the second-most commonly seized item after paws, with 434 bears confiscated during the period.
The bears were mostly caught in Cambodia (156 bears) and Vietnam (152), and said to be headed for bear farms where bile is extracted from caged bears.
Sale of bear bile has been banned in Vietnam and since 2005, it is illegal for bear farms there to acquire new bears. The reports says over 12,000 bears are held in bear farms in China, South Korea, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.
Shepherd says the existence of bear farms increases the availability of bear bile and thus, raises consumer demand. The farms will then be pressured to stock more bears, which further drives the poaching of wild bears.
“There is no evidence supporting the claim that bear farming alleviates the pressure on wild bear populations since these farms are not breeding bears. Most rely on wild bears to maintain their stock since captive breeding of bears in bile extraction facilities is challenging.”
Live bears were also traded in India (35 bears were seized) and Nepal (14) for the dancing bear trade. But with efforts being made to stop this exploitation of bears, the number of dancing bears in India has dropped from 400 to 150 since 2005.
Also driving the illegal trade is the high demand in Asia for medicines containing bear bile. Over 19,100 products containing derivatives of bear bile were seized, mostly in China, Russia, Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea. Significant numbers of gall bladders (373) were also confiscated, mostly in China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Japan, Russia and India.
The researchers, however, often could not obtain information on the outcome of enforcement action, such as the fines or jail sentences imposed on offenders.
Of the 694 reported bear seizures, only 43 cases in four countries (China, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam) had details on fines (ranging from US$316 to US$6,320). This lack of information prevented a thorough assessment of the range of penalties meted out on offenders.
“The number of seizures are a credit to the enforcement agencies, but they undoubtedly only stop a fraction of the overall trafficking because bear products are still widely and easily available across Asia,” says Shepherd.
To curb the illegal trade, the researchers recommend that countries which are party to Cites implement the measures adopted by the treaty in 1997 which states that “the continued illegal trade in parts and derivatives of bear species undermines the effectiveness of the Convention.”
Under the treaty, parties are required to monitor illegal bear trade and submit information on administrative measures (fines, bans, suspensions) imposed for violations, seizures, prosecutions or other court actions and disposal of confiscated specimens.
Because of the cross-border nature of the illegal bear trade, Traffic recommends that a centralised database be developed to collate all related information. It says better understanding of the trade will enable parties to better deal with the illegal trade.
Vietnam, China, Myanmar, Laos and South Korea are also urged to close their bear bile farming facilities to conform to a International Union for Conservation of Nature recommendation calling for their closure. Public awareness campaigns are also needed to highlight the impact of consuming bears and their derivatives on wild bears.
Research should be conducted to identify substitutes for bear bile and to promote alternatives to consumers. Equally important are advocacy campaigns targeted at traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioners to ensure that bears are included in their list of prohibited species that they are not permitted to work with.
In Malaysia, processed bear bile is openly sold. A 2010/2011 Traffic survey of 212 TCM shops revealed 163 (77%) to stock such products. Shepherd says from recent checks, some of these shops are still selling the banned products. “We need the TCM practitioners to not prescribe bear bile to their patients.”