By Susan McClelland
January 22, 2001
It wasn't easy getting the owner of the traditional Chinese medicine
shop in Montreal to admit she sold bear gallbladders and items made
with bear bile. "It's illegal to have these things," the proprietor
told Hsieh Yi, an undercover agent hired by the London-based World
Society for the Protection of Animals. Posing as a customer, Hsieh
-- who uses a pseudonym -- persisted, talking at length about the
medicinal benefits of products such as fel ursi, for the treatment
of hemorrhoids. Eventually, when the shopkeeper was convinced she
had found a sincere buyer, she reached behind the counter and brought
out ointments, bottles of oil and pills all made with bear bile.
She even revealed she used to carry bear gallbladders. "But not
anymore," Hsieh later told Maclean's. "She did not know any Canadian
hunters to buy them from."
The shopkeeper's initial discretion is understandable. Retailers
convicted of selling a single product made with contraband animal
parts face up to five years in jail and fines up to $150,000 in
Canada. Yet Hsieh, who undertook similar undercover investigations
in 33 shops in Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia last fall, says
she found that more than two-thirds of them sold medicines made
with bear bile. She also claims that three shops sold bear gallbladders,
which are used for a number of disorders including fever, skin lesions
and pain relief. Two store owners even admitted the organs came
from bears that had been poached in Canada; gallbladders sold for
as much as $800. "Sometimes the items were openly displayed on the
shelves," says Hsieh.
The illicit trade in body parts isn't restricted to providing
components for traditional medicines. There are countless dealers
across Canada selling meat and bones and fur from poached or endangered
species, and they are willing to risk the legal consequences because
the demand is so strong. Wealthy clients around the world have paid
as much as $23,000 for a single shahtoosh shawl made with the fine
hair off the skin of endangered Tibetan antelopes. And buyers will
pay top dollar for imported bushmeat, such as monkeys from Africa
or exotic fish. Then there's jewelry made from the tusks of poached
elephants, or chichi handbags made from the skins of rare reptiles.
It all adds up to a retail trade that legal experts estimate to
be worth millions every year in Canada, and billions worldwide.
"It never ceases to surprise me how much of this I see or what people
will do to trade illicit products," said a veteran federal Wildlife
Service enforcement officer, who asked to remain anonymous.
The trade is so vast, in fact, that authorities sometimes make
busts quite by accident. Just last December, officers of the Canada
Customs and Revenue Agency in Halifax seized about 4,400 products
made from elephant ivory during a routine training exercise. As
part of a drill, a recruit opened a suitcase that, to officials'
great surprise, contained bracelets, necklaces, earrings and carvings
of elephants and Disney characters that were destined for sale in
gift shops. An Ontario man has been charged with importing the goods
estimated to be worth as much as $75,000. It is unknown whether
the ivory was from African or Indian elephants, or how many animals
died to provide the tusks.
The campaign against harvesting animals for these purposes is
designed to protect endangered species. But generally, it is a losing
battle. The use of rhinoceros horn in Eastern medicine to treat
fever and nosebleed and in the Middle East for making decorative
dagger handles has decimated rhinoceros populations. Similarly,
every species of tiger and all bears in Asia, including the panda
and Asiatic black bear, are declining rapidly because of the popularity
of their skins as collectors' items, and their bones and organs
for medicinal uses. Those animals are supposed to be protected by
the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild
Fauna and Flora. The agreement, endorsed by 152 nations, prohibits
the international sale of endangered species and their parts, and
regulates the trade of other animals whose survival in the wild
is at risk. Yet for many, the slide towards extinction continues.
Critics claim that Canada's position is contradictory. It is one
of the early signatories of CITES, yet it does not commit the resources
to enforce the CITES mandate. As well, Ottawa recently began to
allow tourists and new Canadians to import products made from CITES-protected
animals. Except in a few instances, the exemption does not apply
to live animals, but it does enable the importation of conch shells,
rare coral and some products made from exotic skins including shahtoosh
shawls and ivory, as long as the items are not for commercial sale.
"Canada has opened yet another loophole for smuggling wildlife parts
and products," says Nathalie Chalifour of the World Wildlife Fund.
Wildlife Service officers, however, say the exemption was necessary.
"When we spend most of our time confiscating tourist material, we
can't focus on the people doing the illegal trading," says Gary
Colgan, Ontario chief of Environment Canada's wildlife enforcement
division. "We were forced to make a choice: the little guys or the
larger importers and smugglers."
Domestically, dealers and poachers trade in native products, for
local consumption as well as for export. It is illegal in every
province to sell meat from wild hunted game such as moose and deer
but it is widely available for sale. There is also a market for
parts, such as bear paws for soup. No one is certain how many animals
are being slaughtered for food and other illegal purposes. "We know
bears are being killed, but we just don't know the magnitude because
we aren't finding all the carcasses," says David Ward, co-ordinator
of special investigations for Manitoba's ministry of natural resources.
The penalties are not a serious disincentive. Last spring in Surrey,
B.C., two men who pleaded guilty to selling 18 bear gallbladders
for medicinal use were fined only $7,000 each and served only 17
days in jail. "This speaks to how we as society view animals," says
Charlotte Montgomery, author of Blood Relations: Animals, Humans
and Politics. "They are a very low priority."
That said, the majority of bear products sold in traditional Chinese
medicine shops are smuggled in from Asia. In China, the sale of
bear products is legal, and according to the Chinese ministry of
forestry, there are 247 farms where thousands of bears are "milked"
for their bile. Chinese authorities insist the bears are treated
humanely, but recently they acknowledged that some smaller farms
are run poorly. Undercover videos shot last year at poorly operated
farms in six Chinese provinces showed cages that were so small the
animals could barely turn around. The bears exhibited aberrant social
behaviour -- owners even admitted that mothers had been known to
eat their cubs. Members of wildlife conservation groups who have
visited these farms claim the majority of the animals die prematurely.
Conservation groups also report that about 50 per cent of the bears
die during the bile extraction process, which involves surgically
inserting a tube into the animal's abdomen, often without the aid
of a veterinarian or anesthesia.
But at least those animals were used to make medicines. The majority
of animals are slaughtered simply because the poachers and dealers
can make a profit catering to the fashions and tastes of well-heeled
consumers. Over the past few years, more than a hundred New York
City socialites and celebrities, including fashion model Christie
Brinkley, were subpoenaed to testify in a U.S. district court for
buying shawls made of shahtoosh. Two dealers were convicted in January
of trading the items, which many of the socialites purchased at
a 1994 fund-raising event benefiting cancer.
To satisfy the demand for shahtoosh shawls, poachers annually
kill an estimated 20,000 Tibetan antelope, known as chiru. They
have to be skinned to gather the ultrafine wool that produces the
soft, light and warm garments. As a result, populations of chiru
have been decimated, falling to about 75,000 today from more than
one million in 1900. Wildlife experts predict the animal could soon
be extinct, and it's not difficult to understand why. It takes the
skins of at least three chiru to produce a single shawl, and on
any given day, there are hundreds of shawls available for sale.
They sell for thousands of dollars -- but the real cost is much