Conservation Officer T.L. White., Sgt. C.R. Johnson, and Wildlife Manager Tom Pratt with confiscated black bear remains and illegal bait taken from arrested Ohio poachers in 2009 (West Virginia Division of Natural Resources).
Virtually everywhere that populations of bears remain they are the victims of illegal hunting. Even in areas where there are legal bear hunts poachers still take bears out of season, by illegal means or without the necessary official permit.
Poaching takes place for a number of reasons; bears are killed for “sport” (trophy poaching), for their pelts, for body parts or because they are seen as a threat or nuisance. Live bears, usually cubs, are poached for use in bear bile farming, to be used as dancing bears or as pets. In most instances their mothers are killed.
Poachers typically shoot their prey but they may also use poisoned bait to achieve their ends. Whilst the latter method may seem particularly reprehensible there is nothing sporting about the means poachers use to shoot their prey. They may use dogs to chase and corner a bear, they may set out bait to provide an easy meal for the animal and then shoot it whilst it’s feeding or they may trap it, often by extremely inhumane means, and then shoot the bear hours or even days later.
Live cubs are generally taken by shooting their mother and then capturing the frightened offspring; often the animals are captured in traps. Bears are also killed or taken alive from their winter dens.
Much of the battle to protect bears from poaching is undertaken by conservation and animal rights organisations. Whilst poaching is by its very nature illegal, there are huge disparities in the resources and effort governments expend in enforcing anti-poaching laws from country to country and even within countries. Enforcement often involves anti-poaching patrols and undercover work. Bears are usually found in extremely remote areas which are impossible to regularly police and in order to maximise success enforcement actions need to be intelligence led.
Poaching can yield high returns for the perpetrators and in many cases organised crime is heavily involved in the process, particularly with regard to the trade in bear body parts. Poachers are almost always armed and whilst they may not always be inclined to use their weapons against law enforcement agents this is an ever-present risk.
Poaching for medicine
The illegal trade in the body parts of bears is a problem worldwide and, in many areas, the situation is worsening. Seven of the eight bear species of the world are subject to this trade; the exception is the giant panda.
The demand for bear body-parts, mainly gallbladders and paws, is predominately for their use in Chinese Traditional Medicine (CTM). This demand is not limited to Asian countries and in Europe the United Kingdom is the largest importer of illegal bear body parts and bile.
The demand for bear products has fuelled a growing network of international trade throughout Southeast Asia, and has turned many subsistence hunters into commercial poachers. In Asia most commercial trade routes seem to eventually terminate in China, in Europe the majority finish up in the UK.
There are two main ways in which individuals can help the fight against the illegal traditional medicine trade in bear parts (in addition to not buying these medicines, of course). The first can be summed up in six words; “if you see it, report it”. The second involves supporting the various organisations, including Bear Conservation UK, that are fighting the trade and campaigning against it.
Conserve Global Bear Populations and Stop Illegal Poaching of Bears (Humane Society of the United States)
Poaching threatens South America’s only bear species (article published 31 May 2019) (opens in new window)
Operation Something Bruin is a multi-agency initiative focused on illegal activities involving bears and other wildlife in North Carolina and Georgia in the USA. Those involved include state wildlife agencies, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service.
Page updated 08 June 2019