Several species of bears in Asia and North America are subject to illegal hunting, although poaching in North America is rare. The bears may be killed for their claws, skin, ans other trophies; for their meat, particularly their paws; or for specific organs used in traditional Chinese medicine. Not all species of bears are critically endangered, however every species is given some level of protection under CITES international commercial trade. Where populations are strongest and hunting and poaching well-regulated, select populations of specific bear species may be exempted from commercial trade protections. Notably, populations of brown bear and black bear in North America are given limited Appendix II protections and domestic hunting is legalized in some states. In many Southeast Asian countries the hunting or domestic trade in the parts of native bear species is illegal, but there is little enforcement and has resulted in high levels of bear poaching. At an international level, Asian black bear, sun bear, and sloth bear populations are given the highest protections prohibiting international trade.
In Asia, live bears are illegally caught and sold to consumers as pets or to bear bile farms that regularly harvest a small amount of fluid from the gallbladder. Bile harvesting of an individual bear can last decades and requires them to be kept in captivity where they often live in small cages. Their bile is sold to the folk medicine industry due to its purported medicinal effects. As of 2016, the top bear bile farming countries of China, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam were estimated to have over 20,000 bears in bile farms (page 2). China, South Korea, and Vietnam have traditionally been the largest markets for bear products (page 6), but many countries are consumers or part of the supply chain (pages 17, 20), including North Korea (page 20).
Around 2016 South Korea and Vietnam began to phase out their bear bile farms in accordance with a 2012 IUCN Resolution (direct link), beginning with South Korea’s sterilization of bears in captivity (page 1). In a further sign of progress in reducing demand for illicit products, an earlier survey suggested that Vietnam’s consumption of bile products had dropped by 61% from 2009 to 2014 (page 6). Bear products are regulated in Japan and China, but China produces and exports pharmaceutical products (pages 7-8) to Southeast Asia despite international controls. China has been, and remains, an entrepôt for grey-market trafficked wildlife parts and a hub of pharmaceutical manufacturing supplying the folk medicine practitioners of Southeast Asia (pages 8, 19).
For more on bear poaching, farming, and demand in Asia see Buyers of Bear Parts ►
The data below reflects the number of incidences where foreign or domestic border control or customs officials seized bears or bear parts being illegally trafficked. Not all Asian countries report seizures relating to the bear trade, and some reports came from seizures made at destination countries. Additionally there are gaps in the data where countries failed to make any seizures, in spite of known illegal wildlife trafficking within or through its borders.
A total of 694 seizures (page 14) relating to the Asian illegal bear trade were made from 2000 through 2011. An arrest or prosecution was made in only 51 of those cases. China, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam were the only countries reported to impose fines as a penalty, with the maximum fine roughly $6,320 (in 2012 dollars) (page 36).
Cambodia was listed as the point of origin (page 14) or the destination of 190 of the 694 seizures. 60 of those seizures involved the trafficking of one or more bears, either alive or dead (page 20). Similarly, China was a major country of export, but was also a destination for trafficked bear products. 145 shipments were seized relating to China. 28 of those shipments contained a total of 299 bears (page 20). A total of 434 live bears (page 19) were seized over the twelve year period, likely headed to bear bile farms. Incidents of bear poaching for their parts, as well as for the pet trade, continues today.
Number of Shipments Seized Coming From or Going to an Asian Nation
|Total seizures by country||2000||2001||2002||2003||2004||2005||2006||2007||2008||2009||2010||2011||Total|
|Total seizures each year||24||22||20||45||45||57||53||93||75||89||104||67||694|
|Hong Kong||Data Unavailable||DU||DU||DU||1||DU||DU||DU||1||2||2||DU||6|
Source: Brought to Bear: An Analysis of Seizures Across Asia (2000-2011) by TRAFFIC, page 14.
Although Asia appears to be the largest market for bear bile, paw, and other parts the United States made 210 seizures (page 13) of shipments from Asia related to illegal bear trafficking during 2000-2011.
Historical poaching data: From 1983 through 2002 there were 8 North American brown bear (grizzly bear) deaths attributed to poaching (page 70) in the Cabinet–Yaak and Selkirk ecosystems of Idaho, Montana, Washington, and British Columbia. During the same period 14 grizzly bears were killed due to unknown human intervention where no clear proof of motive was available. These statistics are higher than the number of bears killed in self defense or as a result of legal hunting.