By Tatiana Dmitrenko of WildAid Asiatic black bears are the pride of the Far Eastern fauna and once used to be listed in the Red Data Book of the Russian Federation as rare and endangered animals that required protection from the government. However, in 1998, the population was thought to be stable enough to exclude those species from the Red Data Book. Hunting, both legal and illegal, begun to gather speed since then, adult bears being killed for their paws and gall bladder, known to be widely used in the traditional Chinese medicine as a powerful stimulant. Still, the situation remained under control until recently.
This year, however, according to a Russian environmental NGO Phoenix Fund, there has been a splashing increase in demand for bear gall bladder, and what is the most appalling, live cubs. “The cubs, if found in the forest, are either sedated and smuggled to China alive, or killed on the spot for their bladder”, – says Sergei Bereznuk, the Phoenix director. He is convinced the situation with bears in the Russian Far East has become ominously unstable. One of the Phoenix’s projects is providing support for a bear rehabilitation centre, where orphaned bear cubs are kept and looked after until they are independent enough to be released back into the wild. “Last spring and the Spring before, we were constantly receiving telephone calls from people asking us to find a place for the cubs they’d found; in the end we were offered more cubs than our biological station could house”. However, this year Phoenix has not started working on the project yet because no cubs have been brought to the centre. Last week, Phoenix received a telephone call from someone who offered them two cubs at $300 each. “We refused, because we felt if we did otherwise we would have encouraged illegal trade and created demand inside the region”, says Sergei. According to trusted sources, dozens of live bear cubs have been smuggled to China this year. Behind these outrageous doings stands a former police officer last year detained by the Vladivostok Police for trying to sell two tiger skins to an American citizen Steven Galster, the director of an international environmental NGO WildAid. Steven posed as a foreign buyer interested in tiger skins and had been able to videotape the negotiations. The end of the story was that the unfortunate skin seller had been made to pay fine and after some time resigned from his post. However, the retired policeman has become active again and is apparently using his former connections in order to organise bear cub shipments from Chuguevsky, Anuchinsky and other regions of the central Primorye out to China. Once on the border, it takes a hundred dollars bribe to make the Customs and Border Police officers turn a blind eye on wildlife contraband. Now, the ringleader is under surveillance of the Primorsky Krai Customs Department. According to the head of the Department, it could take a long time to verify all the facts and organise a seizure. The coming operation would be a collaborative effort of the Primorsky Krai Customs Department and the Inspection Tiger’s recently established Interregional team.
STF, DSCF and WildAid have been supporting Inspection Tiger and Phoenix’s efforts to investigate and expose wildlife crimes in the Russian Far East. The new Inspection Tiger’s Interregional team whose main priority is networking with other law-enforcement agencies, receives support from IFAW.