According to state Department of Fish and Wildlife officials, there's a huge local, national and international business in selling bear gall bladders. The organs are smuggled into Asia, where they are sold for $1,000 a piece and used as medicine to treat everything from hemorrhoids to liver disease. But traffickers are hard to catch, in part because bear gall bladders are the size of chicken eggs and can be discreetly disposed of, according to Lori Preuss, the department's criminal justice liaison.
Bear gall bladders fetch big money in Asia
Undercover sting operations recently snagged two men, however, and they have just received sentences. On Dec. 22, a Spokane County Superior Court fined a Spokane grocer named Jason Yon $1,000 after he was found guilty of purchasing four bear gall bladders from undercover officers. A few days earlier, a butcher from Curlew (in northeast Washington) named William Page received a one-year jail sentence, and $3,000 fine after admitting he'd bought 35 gall bladders, 17 of them from undercover officers.The undercover operations were sparked by tips from a hunter who acts as a confidential informant, according to Preuss. The state has gall bladders on hand and available for undercover sale thanks to a special permit that allows hunters to kill bears who've caused damage to crops or livestock. The hunters are required to turn in the gall bladders of the bears they kill.
No such provision exists for hunters who kill bears during the twice-yearly bear hunting season. But it is illegal to buy or sell any parts of the animal other than the hide.
The reason, say wildlife officials, is to prevent people from hunting bears--and decimating the species--specifically for the lucrative gall bladders.
While Yon and Page were accused only of buying the bear organs, wildlife officials say they believed the men were going to turn around and sell them. Page, in fact, admitted that he sold gall bladders in the past to Asian buyers, including a client from Korea who flies here once a year.
For an idea of the kind of players that move in this international market, check out the new edition of National Geographic, which profiles a renowned convicted wildlife smuggler from Malaysia named Anson Wong. The lead photo features a bear spread eagled on its back, a syringe tapping its gall bladder bile through a syringe inserted into its chest.