- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 11, 2004

The top dollars paid for elixirs extracted from bear organs and soup made with bear paws have been feeding an Asian black market that stretches from the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to the District, Maryland, New York and South Korea.

Federal and state authorities recently disrupted the network when a three-year sting operation called “Operation Viper” resulted in nearly 700 charges against more than 100 people accused of trafficking poached black bears and illegally harvested ginseng roots.

Details of the charges are currently under seal in court, but a federal grand jury so far has indicted 38 persons, of whom two have been arrested. Future grand juries will examine more charges in coming months, officials said.

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the National Park Service ran the sting out of the Dixie Emporium, a sporting goods shop the two agencies set up in Elkton, Va., a few miles outside the national park.

An undercover agent acting as the shopkeeper infiltrated the market by purchasing whole bears or body parts. The shop would then sell the contraband to traffickers, who were trailed by other undercover agents as they peddled pieces of the animal in the District, Maryland, West Virginia, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, California and South Korea.

More than $61,000 in illegal sales of bear and ginseng took place at the Dixie Emporium, said Shenandoah National Park spokeswoman Claire Come.

“We had a couple cases where customers asked for the whole bear, but in most cases they just asked for the [gall bladders] and paws,” she said.

Mrs. Come said the brisk business at Dixie Emporium was just the tip of a multimillion-dollar black market in bear parts.

“Keep in mind that this was one small store in one small community,” she said. “This business is immense. In Asian countries, where there is no control over this, they have nearly hunted the bear to extinction because of the demand.”

The lucrative black-bear and ginseng trade is driven by worldwide demand for the ingredients in traditional Chinese medicines that treat cancer, burns, pain, asthma, respiratory ailments, diabetes, liver disorders and the stomach flu. The most coveted part of the bear is the gall bladder, which contains bile that is dried, ground and sold by the gram with a higher street value than cocaine.

Pacific Rim nations, particularly South Korea, use the bile as an all-purpose elixir, and a single gall bladder can fetch as much as $3,000.

Bear paws that are used in a soup are considered a delicacy and thought to cure respiratory and gastrointestinal ailments. Asian restaurants can sell a bowl of the soup for more than $60 in the United States and $1,000 overseas.

Similarly, wild American ginseng root is far more expensive than the legal cultivated ginseng commonly found in herbal teas and dietary supplements. The black-market ginseng can cost as much as $365 a pound, compared with about $10 a pound for cultivated ginseng.

Law enforcement agencies estimate that poachers kill more than 40,000 bears a year in the United States, including hundreds poached in national parks. Between 1995 and 1999, federal agents intercepted more than 70 illegal shipments of bear parts en route to Asia — a sample of the estimated $2-billion-a-year bear business.

“The problem is, we have this huge black market, which is eyeing our resources, our bears, and that is what we are trying to prevent,” Mrs. Come said.

Operation Viper, which is short for Virginia Interagency Effort to Protect Environmental Resources, is the latest in a series of joint investigations of illegal trade in wildlife and endangered plants.

The probe grew out of a previous investigation called Operation Soup, or Special Operation to Uncover Poaching, which uncovered widespread hunting and trade of black bears in Shenandoah National Park and elsewhere.

Operation Soup also found that many involved in the illegal bear trade were simultaneously dealing in wild American ginseng roots, some of which came from the park, where digging ginseng roots is against the law.

Under federal law, the maximum penalty for trafficking in wildlife and endangered plants, such as black bears and wild American ginseng, is five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

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