U.S. bear hunters & Asian gangsters cut paws & deals
ASHEVILLE, North Carolina––Jody Williams and his Facebook group Help Asheville Bears want to catch the perp, or multiple perps, responsible for their recent discovery that at least 15 three-legged North American black bears are struggling for survival in the Smoky and Blue Ridge Mountains, many of them in Great Smokies National Park.
The Help Asheville Bears page on Facebook displays photos and videos of the bears: 12 near Asheville, North Carolina, plus one each near Gatlinburg and Banner Elk, North Carolina, and one near Pickens, South Carolina.
“It started in August 2019 when WLOS-TV in Asheville shared security camera footage of a three-legged mama bear and her cubs outside a home in Arden, North Carolina,” reported Shannon Smith of WBIR-TV in Knoxville, Tennessee, on May 20, 2020.
“Jody Williams saw a bear with the opposite leg missing in a similar area a few days before.”
Recalled Williams, “That’s when my stepfather said somebody’s trapping bears.”
“Somebody’s trapping bears”
Williams founded Help Asheville Bears “thinking we were going to catch some neighborhood trapper,” he told Smith. “Then the reports started piling in,” Williams added.
The North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission, as of August 2019, did not seem to take the plethora of three-legged bear sightings seriously..
“Bears get hit by cars all the time, and unfortunately bears with three legs are not uncommon,” North Carolina Wildlife Resource spokesperson Justin McVey told WLOS-TV.
“They adapt very well,” McVey explained, “and they can live a successful life, even with just three legs.”
Indeed, three-legged bears can live a relatively normal bear life, but three-legged bears are not actually common at all––not according to the historical record.
More 3-legged bears in the Great Smokies right now than ever before reported in a 20-year span
The web site Newspaper Archive, making the newspaper holdings of the Library of Congress accessible to the public, includes articles documenting the lives of just 68 three-legged bears in the 150 years since 1870. Three-legged bears have been reported in 15 consecutive decades, never less than twice in a decade, but as many as seven three-legged bears have been reported only in the 1880s and 1950s.
More three-legged bears are now within the three-state territory monitored by Help Asheville Bears than have been reported in any previous 20-year span in the entire U.S., and in the whole preceding 40 years.
As trapping bears in Tennessee and North Carolina is illegal, Smith of WLOS-TV explained, “Help Asheville Bears has given out $80,000 in rewards so far to tipsters” whose information might “help stop alleged trappings.”
Nine names involved for three decades
Said Williams, “We had an informant come forward who has provided us with nine names that are involved in a three-decade-old trapping and poaching operation.”
This is quite plausible. Bear-trapping and poaching have been big business wherever bears are found for at least four decades. Killing bears to sell their gall bladders into the traditional Chinese medicine trade became a globally notorious racket many years before entrepreneurs in China, both North and South Korea, Vietnam, and Laos began keeping bears in small cages to extract their bile circa 40 years ago, bypassing risky dealings with poachers and smugglers.
Since the rise of the bile farming industry in Asia, most of the bear gall bladders poached or otherwise illegally sold in the U.S. and Canada are believed to have been marketed through traditional Chinese medicine shops right here at home, serving customers who want bear gall products but have no access to the products produced abroad.
Money made one paw at a time
What is relatively new, or at least relatively unknown, is the practice of trapping bears specifically to cause them to wring off a paw to escape from a cable snare or leghold trap, or to enable a poacher to cut a paw off, leaving the rest of the bear to poach later.
Indeed, the history of three-legged bear reports suggests that taking paws from live bears was practically unheard of, in North America at least, until under 10 years ago.
But this practice was known in parts of Southeast Asia. As word of the money to be made in supplying fresh bear paws to high-end Asian clients spread among U.S. and Canadian bear hunters and trappers, many American and Canadian poachers showed themselves quite willing to jump into the racket.
Fresh bear paw is used chiefly to make bear paw soup, in demand exclusively among ostentatious multi-millionaires and billionaires, mostly of Chinese ancestry if not nationality, whose consumptive habits display the same level of affluence and ruthlessness as seen in American and Canadian tycoons who spend tens of thousands of dollars to shoot trophy-sized lions, tigers, elephants, rhinos, and other rare species, typically as members of Safari Club International.
Racket first exposed in Cambodia
Just as shooting a single elephant usually costs the trophy hunter more than the median U.S. household income, serving a business meal featuring bear paw soup costs more than the median Chinese household income.
This is why even the highest of high rollers among Chinese gangsters may order bear paws one at a time, from sources who guarantee that the paws are fresh by showing video of the victimized bear, still alive––albeit not necessarily for long, since a three-legged bear is relatively easily tracked and victimized again to collect another paw or two, and eventually, the gall bladder and the last remaining paws, often to be sold with the same video showing the three-legged bear.
The one-paw-at-a-time racket may have been first exposed in Cambodia in the early 1990s––then one of the world’s poorest and most unstable nations, but with a relatively large population of sun bears, the smallest bear species, resembling a miniature North American black bear.
Indeed, Cambodia had no law at all protecting wildlife––or other animals––until 1994.
At least one restauranteur in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital city, became notorious for keeping caged sun bears on the premises, so as to be able to serve Chinese wildlife traffickers, there to dicker over large orders for more common species, bear paw soup sourced right in front of them.
Three sun bears were reportedly bought out of the restaurant cages in 1997 and evacuated to the Taronga Park Zoo in Australia by U.S. casino consultant Randy Steed.
That only emboldened Phnom Penh restauranteur Soeurn Simeth.
Soeurn Simeth in March 1998 boasted to media that despite an agriculture ministry pledge to set up a special police unit to enforce anti-poaching laws, corruption would allow him to sell as much wildlife meat as he could obtain.
“If I am asked to sign an agreement to stop selling, I will, Soeurn Simeth told Huw Watkin, Mekong region reporter for the South China Morning Post, “but I am not worried. If government officials come, I will just give them money.”
Added one of Soeurn Simeth’s customers, Cambodian army major Kun Daravan, “If you have the money, you can eat anything.”
Chinese merchant funded exposé
For once, the open defiance of the weak Cambodian conservation laws had some visible consequences. The Taronga Park Zoo, of Sydney, Australia, within days sent senior keeper of Asian animals Caroline Shemwell to Phnom Penh to help officials orchestrate a crackdown.
At the Phnom Tamao Zoo, about 30 miles from Phnom Penh, a British organization called Free The Bears built a special enclosure for any bears who might be liberated from restaurants, Simeth’s and any others, caught offering fresh bear paw soup.
A sympathetic Chinese merchant funded an undercover investigation that videotaped the owners of four Phnom Penh restaurants accepting orders for bear paw soup.
A series of raids followed, in which sun bears, an Asiatic black bear, a barking deer, gibbons, pythons, hog badgers, and rare birds were seized.
Unfortunately, Cambodian law required that the restauranteurs, rather than being fined, received compensation for 20% of their loss of merchandise.
The Chinese merchant paid, lest the Cambodian authorities refuse to prosecute similar cases.
“Eight of 15 bears either pawless or toeless” in Taiwan
One-paw-at-a-time merchandising also surfaced in Taiwan, where National Pingtung University of Science & Technology assistant professor Hwang Mei-hsiu from 1998 through 2000 documented the use of wire snares and leghold traps to catch bears in Yushan National Park.
Reported Lilian Wu for the Taipei Times, “Eight of the 15 bears she and her team of volunteers found were either pawless or toeless, as the bears had bitten off their extremities or lost them after being snared in traps.”
The bear paw soup business was exposed in Thailand at the wholesale rather than one-paw-at-a-time level after wildlife dealer Leuthai Tiewchareun was arrested in September 2004 in possession of the bloody carcass of a Bengal tiger.
“Leuthai Tiewchareun was well-known to the authorities,” wrote Mark Townsend of the London Observer. “In November 2003, when police raided his home, more than 20 pairs of bear paws lay beside piles of fresh tiger meat.”
Paws from bile farm bears drove price down
For a time, the availability of abundant bear paws from bile farms drove the price of poached bear paws down. Chinese demand for poached bear paws soared, even as the Beijing government cracked down on illegal trafficking.
The crackdown was perhaps in part because many Chinese local governments had invested in bile farming and did not appreciate competition.
The largest bear paw seizures on record followed: 278 from a smuggling ring in southwestern Yunnan, China, in May 2006; 173 from a truck stopped on suspicion of hauling illegal drugs in Fangchenggang, Guangxi province, near the Vietnamese border, in June 2009; 447 from two trucks stopped at the Russia/China border in 2010; 1,041 from a seizure at the Russia/China border in June 2011.
Beijing banned sale of paws from bile farms
By then, at urging of the Animals Asia Foundation, the Beijing government had banned the sale of bear paws from bile farms––which returned the business entirely to poachers.
Most bear paw seizures reported during the next several years, including from traffickers in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, involved only from handfuls to dozens of paws––which nonetheless implied severe cruelty to bears from whom paws were taken alive, and dire consequences for diminishing populations of sun bears, a protected species throughout their range, red-listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Species and listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. This means that sun bears and their parts are not legally sold across national borders anywhere.
Not particular about species
Bear paw customers, however, do not seem to be particular what sort of bears’ paws they consume.
A large seizure of brown bear paws came on May 22, 2013, in Manzhouli, Inner Mongolia, where Chinese customs officials caught two Chinese citizens and two Russians smuggling 213 paws in the tires of a van. The Chinese defendants drew sentences of six and seven years in prison, respectively; the Russians got five years each.
On January 29, 2018, Russian authorities announced that they had discovered 870 paws from poached brown bears in two minibuses and an SUV that tried to illegally cross a frozen lake forming part of the Russian/Chinese border.
North American law enforcement slow to understand the traffic
The illegal U.S. and Canadian traffic in bear gall bladders meanwhile had long since expanded into trafficking in bear paws as well, but North American law enforcement has been slow to recognize that the most profitable parts of bears now are the paws.
Kevin and Brendan Casey, for instance, owners of the Bear Country USA roadside zoo near Rapid City, South Dakota, in June 2006 pleaded guilty to illegally buying two grizzly bears from Minnesota and selling bear gall bladders.
That they also sold 44 bear paws between September 1999 and October 2001 scarcely rated a mention.
British Columbia authorities stumped
Conservation officers in British Columbia, Canada, were stumped in August 2007, Wendy Leung of the South China Morning Post reported, after three black bears – were found dumped along remote roadsides near the town of Nanaimo on the southeastern coast of Vancouver Island.
“Their mutilated carcasses were discovered within days of one another, with their paws hacked off and their gall bladders and hearts removed,” Leung wrote.
The British Columbia authorities may or may not have gotten a clue from the August 14, 2011 arrest of a 39-year-old man who was caught at the Vancouver International Airport trying to board a flight to China with three bear paws in his carry-on luggage.
The paws were detected by X-ray.
Bear carcasses with paws missing have now been reported as far east as Ontario and Quebec.
California wardens no quicker
As in Canada, the California Department of Fish & Game did not seem to know what they were looking at when in May 2008, as Greyson Howard of the Nevada Appeal reported, “A bag of severed black bear paws turned up on the doorstep of a home in Riverside. Officials were not sure if they were intended to be sold, eaten or kept as trophies. An investigation determined the bears had been hunted legally, and there was no proof that anyone had tried to sell the parts.”
Bear Education Aversion League founder Ann Bryant told Howard, he wrote, that “There are two to three reports a year locally of bear carcasses missing organs, paws or heads,” but California Department of Fish & Game patrol captain Mark Lucero denied the existence of “any organized black market in the Truckee-Tahoe area.”
Not much more was made of the June 4, 2016 discovery of a dead two-year-old bear in Canyon County, Los Angeles, with paws hacked off and gall bladder removed. California Department of Fish & Game investigators surmised that the bear had been roadkilled accidentally, and that the mutilations were crimes of opportunity.
Big bust in Montana
Awareness of the economic importance of paws to bear poachers and parts traffickers might have increased, but apparently did not, after David Hong, 57, and his wife Susan Heng Huang, 52, owners of the New Hunan restaurant in Helena, Montana, pleaded guilty in November 2013 to 13 criminal charges involving black bear parts trafficking, including possession of 12 bear paws in a five-gallon bucket. They were fined $9,600 and barred from hunting for six years, with $4,620 of the fine suspended.
But bear gall bladders remained the spotlight issue.
“According to Sergeant Dave Loewen, a game warden with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks,” reported Eve Byron of the Helena Independent Record, “the couple came to the state agency’s attention after they approached a customer eating in the restaurant, asked if they were hunters, and inquired if they would sell them bear gallbladders. A concerned citizen called FWP, which prompted the state agency to launch an undercover investigation.”
Light sentences in Michigan
A year later, in Kent County and Chippewa County, Michigan, four men of Vietnamese origin were caught allegedly “trading in black bear parts,” mostly paws, “in what may have involved transferring the pieces to Asia on a few occasions,” reported John Tunison of the Grand Rapids Press.
Charged only with misdemeanors, after what the Michigan Department of Natural Resources called a “multi-year investigation,” were suspects Tuan Hoa Pham, 52, and Hoa Trung Huynh, 51, of Kentwood, Michigan; Hoang Linh-Duy Tran, 45, of Wyoming, Michigan; and Hieu Van Hoang, 45, of Chippewa County.
Even animal advocates slow to recognize the crime
Though the bear paw traffic is slowly becoming better known, the significance of it continues to elude even most animal advocates.
Lamented Humane Society of the U.S. president Kitty Block on May 27, 2020, “Missouri has proposed a hunting season on its small and still-recovering population of black bears, who were once nearly wiped out because of overhunting and logging. The Missouri Department of Conservation estimates that there are now approximately 540 to 840 bears in the state,” Block wrote, alleging that “The only reason the MDC is proposing this hunt is to appease trophy hunters.”
Well, maybe, but very likely many of those trophy hunters know through the grapevine that the cost of killing and mounting the head of a black bear can be recovered by selling the gall bladder and all four paws––and just selling one paw can be lucrative, if only one paw remains behind in a trap or snare.