Illegal Trade in Black Bear Gallbladders

Bear Gallbladders

Bear Gallbladders

Bill Harrison took the three plastic containers, each filled with what looked like 60 very large dried figs, from the seller.  As an undercover FWS Special Agent in Nevada posing as a trader, Harrison now had the contraband he needed to arrest the man for illegal trade in black bear gallbladders.

Demand for bear parts has already decimated the Asian black bear population, prompting the poaching of the bears’ North American cousins.  The market for bear bile thrives throughout Asia, where traditional medicine uses it to treat liver complaints and reduce fevers, swelling, and pain.  Western medicine uses a chemically synthesized form of a major bear bile acid (tauro ursodeoxycholic acid) to dissolve gallstones and to treat cancers, liver cirrhosis and other ailments.

Although the North American black bear population, with about 700,000 animals, isn’t endangered, it is under increasing threat – both from overseas and from growing domestic demand (due to the rise in the Asian populations in the United States).  The market is extremely lucrative:  In the early 1990’s, a seller in Idaho could receive $15 for a dried gall bladder.  By the time it reached Korea, it could be worth $55,000.  Ounce-for-ounce, it is the highest value commodity on the black market—20 times the price of heroin.

In much of North America, where it is still legal (with a license) to hunt the relatively plentiful bears; 1,500 are killed legally a year.  More than twice that number dies from illegal poaching.  The Nevada undercover field operation hoped to stop, or at least reduce, the poaching.

Armed with what seemed like incontrovertible proof from Harrison, prosecutors in the US Attorney’s office in Denver quickly charged the seller.  The penalty, however, depended on confirmation that the gall bladders came from bear, and not some other animal.  So Harrison boxed them up and sent them to the FWS forensic lab for analysis.