WILDLIFE

Threatened animals

Poachers are supplying an Oriental demand

D’ARCY JENISH August 7 1989
WILDLIFE

Threatened animals

Poachers are supplying an Oriental demand

D’ARCY JENISH August 7 1989

Threatened animals

Poachers are supplying an Oriental demand

WILDLIFE

The bear, a fourto five-year-old male grizzly, had been shot once in the head and once in the stomach with a high-powered rifle. A passing motorist spotted the carcass in late May beside a dirt logging road in a sparsely populated, heavily forested area of the Selkirk Mountains in southeastern British Columbia. Michael Krause, a provincial conservation officer who examined the carcass, said that all four paws had been crudely hacked off. Krause also said informants had told him that a small group of local hunters in his district were killing 20 to 30 bears annually and earning up to $5,000 each by selling the paws, claws and gall bladders for use in Oriental medicines and aphrodisiacs. According to wildlife officers in several provinces, increasing numbers of wild animals are being killed illegally to help supply the lucrative international trade in animal parts that are used in traditional Asian medicine.

At the same time, a fierce controversy has flared over the operation of commercial game farms in several parts of Canada that help to supply the demand for animal parts. On some game farms in Western Canada and Ontario, deer and elk are raised primarily because of the “velvet”—a fine, furry substance that grows on the animals’ antlers each spring. In the Orient, the velvet is prized for its supposed

medicinal and aphrodisiac qualities. In Oriental medicine, the velvet-covered antlers are sliced or ground up and consumed in drinks or in tablet form.

Game farming has triggered a furious debate, primarily in Saskatchewan and Alberta, where supporters of the farms say that by producing antler velvet legally they help to eliminate the need for slaughtering animals in the wild. Still, fish and wildlife organizations maintain that turning deer and elk into farm animals helps to create a market for venison and byproducts such as antler velvet—and ultimately leads to an increase in poaching. Said Darrel Rowledge, a Calgary-based environmentalist: “This market only gets more powerful as a species nears extinction. The Asians want our wildlife because they have destroyed their own.”

Rapid economic growth and rising personal incomes in Asian areas like Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea have led to a dramatic increase in demand for traditional medicines over the past several years. Ronald Johnston, a part-owner of Coldstream Deer Group, an Orillia, Ont.-based company that is currently establishing herds of New Zealand red deer in Canada, said that ordinary consumers in many parts of the Orient now are able to afford traditional medicines that were pre-

viously beyond their reach.

The growing demand has helped to create a huge legal market in products derived from wild animals. Last year, Hong Kong, the largest producer of Asian medicines, legally imported 1.4 million lb. of pharmaceutical animal parts, including seal penises and dried seahorses. About 27 per cent of the imports came from mainland China. New Zealand has developed a major game-farming industry since the early 1970s in order to supply the Asian pharmaceutical market with antler velvet and to meet the international demand for venison. The country’s 3,500 deer farmers have built a herd exceeding 400,000 animals, and annual exports are approaching $31.4 million.

But some Asian medicines and aphrodisiacs rely on ingredients—such as rhinoceros horns, tiger penises and bears’ gall bladders—from rare, endangered or protected species. David Melville, a Hong Kong-based conservation officer with the World Wildlife Fund, said that the British colony controls the import of illegally obtained animal parts. Melville acknowledged that smuggling is inevitable, although he added that Hong Kong customs officials had made only about a dozen seizures of smuggled animal parts during the past three years. Still, the illegal trade has led to tough measures in other parts of the world. Earlier this year, the government of Namibia, a territory now moving toward independence from South Africa, adopted a dramatic new approach after officials discovered that five of the country’s rare black rhinoceroses—whose horns are prized in the Orient and in parts of the Arabian peninsula— had been killed. Namibian conservation officers have removed the horns from about a dozen of the surviving animals in order to discourage poaching.

Although the animal-parts trade in Canada is still relatively small, some conservation officers say they fear that the slaughter is increasing rapidly. Donald Simkin, director of the wildlife branch of the Ontario ministry of natural resources, said that district conservation officers have found about half a dozen black bears over the past year that were killed solely for their paws and gall bladders. Typically, bears’ gall bladders are dried and ground into a powder. Taken internally, they are said to relieve pain and inflammations.

David Robertson, an Alberta fish and wildlife officer based in Grande Prairie, said that early in July a landowner near the town of Beaverlodge, 425 km northwest of Edmonton, reported the discovery of a female black bear carcass, with its paws and gall bladder missing. Robertson said that in late May, fish and wildlife officers completed a two-year investigation by

laying three charges of trafficking in wildlife and one of illegal possession against local businessman Kennedy Mah of Grande Prairie. He said that the officers found a deer’s fetus— which sometimes is used as an aphrodisiac in the Orient—in Mah’s freezer.

In British Columbia, conservation officers in several districts said that they also find bear carcasses with the feet and gall bladders removed. Krause said that information from local residents indicated that two rings of hunters in his district were working with buyers of bear parts from Vancouver’s Asian community. He said that the hunters usually parked on remote logging roads in mountain valleys and used binoculars to scan avalanche chutes for bears. According to Krause, the poachers can shoot the animals from the roads, recover the parts and leave the carcasses on the mountainside. In those cases, he added, the carcasses are rarely discovered. Krause said that a hunter can sell black bear parts for up to $200 each. Krause

said that buyers of Asian descent come through the region once or twice a year to buy the frozen or dried bear parts.

Many conservation officers say that it is nearly impossible to control the trade. For one thing, there is a shortage of personnel. British Columbia’s 104 wildlife officers are responsible for districts averaging 3,500 square miles, and some officers in remote wilderness areas may cover 20,000 square miles. For another, licensed hunters in British Columbia, which has an estimated black bear population of 120,000 and a grizzly population of 13,000, can legally sell parts of animals taken in season. In areas where black bears are considered a nuisance, the season can last up to seven months, and individual hunters can shoot as many as five bears.

Alberta, with an estimated 48,000 black

bears, has allowed the sale and export of bear parts without a permit since 1987. Although there are spring and fall hunting seasons, with a combined limit of four bears per hunter, Alberta landowners can shoot bears on their property at any time without a licence. Dean Watkiss, supervisor of wildlife officers in the Peace River area of northwestern Alberta, said that as a result of the province’s lenient rules, Asian buyers are now advertising in hunting and fishing magazines for bear parts from Alberta.

Meanwhile, game farms are now becoming a second source of animal parts for the Asian medicinal market. Most provinces currently allow game farming, although their regulations vary widely. Norman Moore, a director of the Alberta Game Growers’ Association, said that there are currently 92 licensed farms and a total herd of about 2,700 elk in the province. Alberta only allows the sale of antlers from live animals, said Moore. At an auction in early July, buyers representing Asian pharmaceutical companies paid up to $93 a pound for antlers. The best set of antlers weighed 23 lb. and sold for over $2,100, he added.

Although an Alberta gamefarm operator would have to sell an animal to an out-ofprovince buyer to be slaughtered, Ontario allows the sale of both venison and animal parts. Patricia Martin, secretary of the Ontario Deer Farmers’ Association, said that there are currently about 45 operations in the province, including herds of so-called fallow deer, New Zealand red deer and elk. Fallow deer, imported from New __ Zealand or the United States, Ü weigh only about 120 lb. fully I grown and are raised almost z exclusively for venison. John5 ston and five partners have “ imported 1,700 New Zealand red deer since the fall of 1988 and plan to import another 1,800 animals, in order to establish a herd in Canada. Red deer are raised primarily for venison and antler velvet, but their tails and penises are also used in Asian medicines, said Johnston.

Advocates of game farming claim that by meeting the Asian demand they help to undermine the illegal traffic in such goods. But critics say that the animals should not be used to produce ingredients for a bogus form of medicine. “Game ranching advocates put wildlife in jeopardy to perpetrate fraud,” said Rowledge. “They are selling mystique.” Clearly, traditional Oriental medicine has presented Canada’s wildlife protectors with new and perplexing challenges.

D’ARCY JENISH with JOHN KEATING in Hong Kong and JOHN HOWSE in Calgary

JOHN KEATING

JOHN HOWSE