The seizure of frozen bear paws in luggage at Vancouver airport illustrates the high demand on the black market for animal parts, wildlife advocates say.
B.C. conservation officer Dave Cox was called in after airport security staff x-rayed the carry-on bag of a Vancouver man boarding a flight to China and made the gruesome find.
"In his carry-on luggage he had three forearms, including paws, of at least two different black bears," said Cox.
The two front paws and one rear were frozen and wrapped in aluminum foil.
"We do know that a lot of these parts are used for medicinal reasons, for arthritis and for delicacies in food," said Cox.
The international market for B.C. bear is particularly strong in China and Korea, said Ernie Cooper, of the World Wildlife Federation.
"Bear paws, you know, my guess would be could be anywhere from a hundred dollars to a thousand dollars," said Cooper.
It is legal to hunt black bears in the spring and fall, but the sale and export of parts is illegal.
A conviction can result in a six-month jail sentence, a $250,000 fine, or both.
Officers training questioned
Legislation to curb the trade in bear parts in B.C. was enacted almost 20 years ago.
But conservation officers lack the tools to properly process a crime scene and identify wildlife poachers and trafficking rings, said Simon Fraser University Criminologist Gail Anderson.
"We need to train them to recognize evidence and to collect evidence and then to be able to collect it correctly so it can be brought back to the laboratory to be analysed … and then eventually be taken into court and hopefully secure a conviction," Anderson said. Experts believe bear-part trafficking is a major problem but exactly how big is impossible to gauge.
"Criminals don't issue annual reports," said Cooper. "So it's hard to know what level of activity is going on with illegal trade in bear parts and poaching of bears."
The man stopped at Vancouver airport faces charges under provincial and federal legislation and is scheduled to appear in court in the fall.