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November|December 2002
The Strange Tale of Charlie Smoke By Michael Erard
Devine Intervention By Marci Alboher Nusbaum
Bear Market By Kim Todd
My Father's Lawyer By Joy Horowitz

Bear Market

Kim Todd on why demand for a traditional Chinese medicine is bad news for bears.

By Kim Todd

Like many bears, the American black bear sleeps through the winter. The months of fasting that accompany this season-long slumber are made possible by the bear's gallbladder, a small organ tucked near its liver. The gallbladder holds bile, which in turn holds ursodeoxycholic acid. The acid allows bears to lose fat but not body mass, and it eases digestion and prevents gallstones. But the bile has a serious side effect: It has made black bears part of a growing and lucrative black market. Ounce for ounce, bear bile is worth more than gold.

Bear bile first appeared as an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine in seventh-century medical texts, and bile and pieces of gallbladder have been prescribed to treat fevers, swelling, seizures, and eye and liver disease ever since. Unlike tiger bone and rhino horn—traditional Chinese medicines whose reputations are greater than their efficacy—bear bile offers genuine results for those willing to dissolve the bitter crystals on their tongues. In the 1970s, Western researchers picked up on this potency and began studying ursodeoxycholic acid. A synthetic form of the acid, called Actigall, is now one of the primary medicines used to dissolve and prevent gallstones. The drug can also reduce liver damage caused by cirrhosis and has been tested as a way to improve liver enzymes in patients with hepatitis C. But many traditional Chinese medicine practitioners don't trust the synthetic acid: They prefer bile from a bear rather than a laboratory. Throughout Asia, gallbladders continue to garner high prices. In Japan, they sell for between $1,600 and $3,300; bidding at an auction in Korea pushed the price of a single gallbladder up to more than $55,000. The bile itself, crystallized into granules that look like brown sugar, sells for an average of $53 per gram.

Because their habitat is close to the source of the demand, Asiatic black bears were the first to be hard hit by medicinal use. By 1942, the Asiatic black bear was nearly extinct in South Korea, and current estimates place only 17,000 to 19,000 of the species in China. While bile from the Asiatic black bear is most desired because it was the remedy originally prescribed by traditional Chinese texts, other Asian bears—sloth bears, sun bears, and pandas—have also been hurt by illegal harvest and sale of their parts. No one knows exactly how many of each species survive, but with bear habitats shrinking and conservation efforts stalling, the consensus is that the numbers are low. "All these species are challenged to a great degree," said Christopher Servheen, a biologist for the World Conservation Union and one of the first to document the effects of the bile trade on bears internationally. "Trade could be the straw that breaks the camel's back."

As Asiatic bear numbers decline, American black bears represent the last remaining supply of wild gallbladders. By comparison with their Asian cousins, American black bears are thriving: An estimated 700,000 American black bears live in North America—more than all other bear species combined worldwide. But with a high enough price on its head, even the most plentiful species can be-come imperiled. Those keeping an eye on American black bears know the story of the seemingly innumerable wild bison that were decimated when buffalo-skin robes became fashionable in the 1870s. The number of wild bison dropped from 60 million to only 150 in three decades.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, rangers in Canada and the United States began to stumble upon black bear carcasses in the woods. Often they were completely eviscerated, intestines spilling into the dirt; in other instances, the bears had undergone a more precise postmortem surgery—a slit from waist to lower rib and the gallbladder cut away. Paws, which are used as proof that gallbladders are genuine (and are prized in expensive bear paw soup), were often missing as well. Bear parts began turning up in strange places—several in the freezer of an apartment in Brooklyn, seven dipped in chocolate to pass unnoticed through customs, 1,000 in a downed Air India flight from Toronto to Bombay—indicating a scale of trafficking in bear parts previously unknown in North America. In 1995, 19 states launched investigations into the trade.

Since then, poachers have been discovered all across the continental United States. During a three-year interagency sting, code-named Operation SOUP (Special Operation to Uncover Poaching), the National Park Service, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reeled in 52 people and 300 gallbladders throughout Virginia. Around the same time, in 1999, Oregon state police brought racketeering charges against the leader of a ring estimated to have poached 50 to 100 black bears per year for up to a decade. During the crackdown, police found a gallbladder cached in the freezer case of a small-town convenience store. In a Chicago apartment late last year, investigators found seven gallbladders, five paws, four packages of bear meat, two sections of hindquarters, and a hide.

Skip Wissinger, the supervisory special agent in Shenandoah National Park who was in charge of the federal side of Operation SOUP, said that the sting revealed that traffickers were much more than occasional hunters trying to make a few dollars off their kill. "These are commercial organizations that are aimed at the domestic market and the international market," he said. "There appears to be a very significant increase in commercial pressure on National Park resources that didn't exist 20 years ago."

Laws shielding American bears have been greatly improved in the past ten years, but they still provide only a patchwork of protection. Trade in Asian and South American bears is prohibited by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, a 1973 treaty that governs wildlife trafficking. Since American black bears aren't in immediate risk of becoming extinct, trade in American black bear parts is not banned by CITES (and the bears are not protected by the Endangered Species Act). Trade is, however, regulated under the treaty's "look-alike" provision. Organs from different bears often have a similar appearance, and it's relatively easy to pass off a gallbladder from an Asiatic black bear as having come from an American black bear. Even lab testing may not be able to tell the difference. Exporters must apply for and receive permits to ship gallbladders from an American black bear. The permits are not easy to come by—since 1991, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has issued only 19, most for scientific purposes.

United States law backs up the CITES treaty with the Lacey Act, a federal law banning international and interstate traf-fic in illegally taken wildlife. Passed in 1900 to protect wildlife from another slaughter like that of the buffalo, the act makes it a crime "to import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire or purchase any fish or wildlife or plant taken, possessed, transported or sold in violation of any law, treaty or regulation of the United States." It extends the reach of state laws—the primary laws governing game animals—and gives them added force. For instance, New Jersey might lose control of a bear shot out of season once its gallbladder is shipped to Manhattan, but the truck driver, shop owner, or buyer can be prosecuted under the Lacey Act. A trafficker shipping bear bile crystals to Hong Kong without the permit required by the CITES treaty could also be arrested under the act.

The Lacey Act, however, relies heavily on state laws that are wildly inconsistent. If a hunter wants to convert bear parts into cash, his chances of being arrested vary depending on where he attempts the sale. In Idaho, for example, he's free to sell a gallbladder from a bear he shoots legally in state. In New Hampshire, he could sell the paws, but not the gallbladder, claws, or teeth. In Arkansas, he could sell the gallbladder, but only from a bear killed legally in a different state. Four states—Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa—have no black bear trade laws, and no black bears either. Traders often smuggle bear parts harvested from states with tough restrictions into these unregulated states. Once parts have been moved, law enforcement officials have a tough time proving their origin.

Growing concern about poaching and wildlife trafficking in North America has given birth to a new branch of crime fighters. At the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Ore., biologists, chemists, geneticists, and forensic scientists analyze evidence from wildlife crimes. They pore over fingerprints left on packaging, examine bullets and bullet holes, and inspect animal blood left on planes returning from Alaska. When special agents send in a gallbladder or bile crystals that they suspect were illegally acquired or sold, the forensics lab's first job is to determine what animal they actually came from. The gallbladder market is littered with fakes, and bladders often prove to be from cows or pigs. The burden is on law enforcement to show that a vial labeled "bear bile" or an organ on a tray advertised as a "bear gallbladder" is actually bear. To make the determination, Ed Espinoza, deputy director of the lab, and his colleagues first search for scraps of DNA remaining on bile crystals. If they don't find any, they run chemical tests designed to flag bear bile if it's present.

In Canada, forensic entomologists are developing other techniques, borrowing from human forensics. In the mid-1990s, when poachers shot three adult bears and two cubs near a garbage dump and cut out their gallbladders, scientists used the timing of blowflies hatching on the dead cubs to tie two suspects to the scene of the crime.

But even when poachers are caught red-handed, what to do next isn't always clear. The penalties, like the laws, vary. In Colorado, a serious trafficker risks a $100,000 fine and four years in jail. In Kentucky, a first offense might net a $100 fine. Many judges are hesitant or unwilling to impose strong penalties, according to Craig Hoover, deputy director of TRAFFIC North America, a branch of an international organization dedicated to stopping illegal wildlife trafficking. In 1995, a federal judge in Arizona dismissed charges involving bear gallbladders because he didn't think they were worth $350, the minimum for prosecution under the Lacey Act. Federal sentencing guidelines tie punishment to the market value of the illegal item, but judges often calculate that value to be the $280 or so a hunter could get domestically, rather than the thousands the bladder might be worth in Japan.

Most of the 52 arrests in the Operation SOUP roundup came to nothing. Of the nine poachers charged with federal felonies under the Lacey Act, most walked away with two years of probation and a $1,000 to $2,000 fine—not much of a deterrent. "The felony conviction and a couple thousand dollars of fine—that's just a cost of doing business," said Wissinger.

The Federal Bear Protection Act, which has come up in Congress several years in a row, is designed to close some of the holes in state law. The act would outlaw the import, export, and sale of a bear's internal organs throughout the country. It would also ban trade in substances said to contain bear, relieving scientists at the Wildlife Forensics Lab of the need to evaluate whether a packet advertised as bear bile is actually of bovine provenance. The law would also help Asiatic black bears by preventing traffickers from passing off Asian bear parts as legally taken American black bears. "The fact that no gallbladders, bile, or derivatives will be able to leave the U.S. legally will facilitate successful prosecution of such individuals," said Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society of the United States in Congressional testimony on the 1998 version of the act.

Though the Bear Act was stripped as an amendment to the farm bill last summer, it still has strong support from both sides of the aisle and may yet pass. But not everyone is convinced the act will work if it becomes law. It would raise awareness about the issue, said Servheen, but it might not do much to slow the trade when demand remains high. Hoover also expressed skepticism, saying a new law won't do much good unless the government has the tools to enforce it. "It's difficult to argue for a need for federal legislation on this issue, particularly if it doesn't contain funding for the Fish and Wildlife Service," he said. "That's one agency that's really overstrained in terms of how much work they have to do and how much money they have to do it."

In China, scientists have tried to stem the trade in wild bears by using a combination of surgical and agricultural technologies. After North Korea pioneered a technique for bile extraction from live animals, China established bear farms, which drain bile from caged bears through tubes implanted in their gallbladders. Seven thousand bears on more than 200 farms now produce thousands of kilograms annually, far surpassing the country's medicinal needs.

But bear farms, with their small cages, dirty conditions, and sick animals, have attracted charges of animal cruelty, and they may be creating demand for bear bile instead of lessening it. With a surplus of bile and prices for it dropping, promoters are pushing bile as a tonic rather than a medicine, adding it to shampoo and lotions, building markets where none existed before.

According to Servheen, the farms have also failed to take the pressure off wild bears. He described a "two-tiered system," in which those who can afford it pay premium prices for bile from wild bears, believing it to be more potent than the bile of farmed bears or the synthetic Actigall. "There's nothing biologically or chemically to substantiate that claim. It's the same reason people would pay more for vitamin C made from rose hips even though it's the same molecule," Servheen said. And when patients believe "wild" is better, it's hard to convince them otherwise, even if it will save them money. A lot of money. A kilogram of farmed bear bile might cost $240, while the same amount from a wild bear could cost $15,730.

The use of Chinese medicine may be higher in parts of North America than in Asia, and many gallbladders from Oregon and Virginia end up in California and New York rather than Hong Kong. In 2000, when investigators from the World Society for the Protection of Animals wandered through pharmacies in San Francisco's Chinatown, they found hemorrhoid pills, hemorrhoid ointment, and rheumatic oil all containing bear parts, as well as vials of bear bile powder and whole gallbladders for sale, some on prominent display.

In the United States, conservationists are trying to reduce the demand rather than cut off the supply. In 1998, the World Wildlife Fund approached the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco to see if the school would help them reach out to Chinese-Americans in San Francisco. The partnership printed brochures, sent representatives to community festivals, threw a party at the zoo, and collected signatures of those willing to give up cures that relied on endangered species. Educating people about conservation and focusing on the links between their health and the health of the environment was much more effective than a straight ban on certain medicines, according to Lixin Huang, president of the college. "If you simply say 'It's illegal to sell these products,' you'll have resistance," she said. The partnership also targeted doctors and pharmacists—the people who write prescriptions, offer advice, and have already earned their patients' trust. New versions of medical textbooks and reference books for practitioners contain lists of endangered species and herbal alternatives.

Most transactions involving the decision whether or not to use a threatened species take place in a pharmacy like the one at the school, where two walls are taken up by wooden cabinets, each divided into many small drawers and labeled with the medicine's name and properties: "sweet, cool, bland," or "bitter, sour, cool." In one compartment are translucent flakes of shed snake skin, useful for treating acne and eczema. Daniel Jiao, the chairman of the herbal medicine department, reached into one after the other, sifting through cicada shells, dried silk worms that look like sections of spine from a small mammal, and flattened centipedes with their legs curled under the bodies.

The WWF's efforts have made some progress, but when someone believes his grandfather is dying and a wild bear gallbladder could help save him, tighter laws, crime-fighting ingenuity, and even well-worded conservation messages will only go so far. "This medicine has a 3,000-year history," said Huang. "It came to this country 200 years ago; it was picked up by the general public 20 years ago. We can't change it in a year or two."

Kim Todd is an environmental writer and the author of Tinkering With Eden: A Natural History of Exotics in America. She lives in San Francisco.

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