by Xinhua writers Lyu Dong and Zou Jianpu
HOHHOT, June 19 (Xinhua) -- A large number of smuggled bear paws recently seized by authorities has underscored the need for renewed efforts in the fight against illegal animal trading.
A total of 213 bear paws were found in a van in north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, the largest amount ever smuggled into China, customs officials in the border city of Manzhouli said Monday.
The massive stash indicates that bear paw consumption remains high in China, despite campaigns to suppress demand as a way to undermine illegal animal trade, said Zhang Xiaohai, China director of external affairs at Animal Asia, a Hong Kong-based animal welfare advocacy group.
Customs officers in Manzhouli detected unidentifiable objects hidden in the tires of a Russian van trying to enter China through an inland port on May 22.
Inside the four tires and one spare tire were 213 bear paws, weighing from 200 grams to one kg each. Customs officials said at least 54 bears were slaughtered to obtain the paws.
Legal experts estimate the value of the smuggled paws on the black market to be 2.8 million yuan (456,960 U.S. dollars),
The driver of the van and one passenger, both Russians, were arrested and will likely face life imprisonment, according to legal experts.
Bears are listed by the government as a protected species. Poaching is strictly prohibited and leads to harsh penalties. Smuggled bear paws from Russia, whose dense forests are home to large numbers of brown bears, have been actively traded in the underground market in China.
Meanwhile, many bear farms in China have been selling paws of dead bears, a practice also prohibited by Chinese law, after extracting the bears' bile to produce traditional Chinese medicine, said Zhang, citing independent investigations by Animal Asia.
According to Chinese law, the smuggling of products derived from land-based wildlife species that are under state protection or are listed in the appendices of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) can trigger intensive investigation. Wrongdoers are subject to harsh penalties.
Authorities in China and Russia have joined efforts in recent years to combat bear paw smuggling. Border patrol officers in Russia once stopped a truck carrying more than 400 paws on its way to China, according to Russian media reports.
Yet cross-border paw trading is so lucrative that some take the risk despite intensive crackdowns, said Wu Qingyan, a customs official in Manzhouli.
He added that paws worth 400 yuan per kg in Russia can be sold for 20 times more once smuggled to China.
Besides hefty profits, demand for bear paws as a luxury delicacy have also fueled the illegal trade, said Yin Hong, deputy director of the State Forestry Administration.
Ancient beliefs dictate that the parts and organs of some wildlife have great nutritional value and can showcase one's status, Yin said.
Consumers of bear paws are mostly corporate executives and government officials, according to an underground dealer engaged in the trade who requested anonymity.
However, the central government's austerity drive, which was launched late last year to combat corruption and bureaucratic excess, has dampened demand for bear paws, according to the dealer.
China's law on animal protection allows the limited use of animal organs and parts for some purposes, such as producing traditional Chinese medicines, but the extent to which such practices are permitted is not clearly stated.
According to Zhang, the government should consider narrowing the scope of "reasonable utilization" of wildlife resources.
"The blurred definition of what is reasonable has created opportunities for the abuse and torture of rare and endangered species," he said.