RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The trade in Asian medicine goes mostly unnoticed here in the U.S. and often unregulated. We're going to hear now about one prized ingredient of that trade - part of American black bears. A new law in New York state is aiming to regulate the trade in black bear body parts, part of an effort to cut down on poaching. Now, hunters there will have to prove that any black bear parts being sold were taken legally. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: When you drive through Keene, New York, it's hard to imagine that this tiny village in the Adirondack Mountains is part of a trade network that supplies Asian apothecaries and restaurants from New York City to Seoul, South Korea.
BUD PISERCHIA: When we buy bear galls, we're one of the largest buyers in the East.
MANN: That's Bud Piserchia, who runs North Country Taxidermy. He's standing in his workshop surrounded by deer heads and stuffed bobcats. His main business is mounting wild animal trophies. But every year, he also collects as many as 150 tiny black bear gall bladders. His clients are mostly Koreans from New York City.
PISERCHIA: We have people come in to by 20 galls or more, and obviously they're a dealer. OK. We also have Ma and Pa, two people, come up, and they'll buy two galls. So obviously that's for their own consumption.
MANN: Gall bladders are harvested all over the world and black bears are actually farmed for their parts in China and other areas of Asia. Bear gall is used in traditional Asian medicine to treat a variety of ailments. Bear paws are also prized for Chinese soup.
Until this year, the trade was completely unregulated in New York. Lawrence DiDonato, a captain with the state's conservation police, says the lack of oversight meant wildlife biologists had no way to track how much illegal smuggling was going on.
LAWRENCE DIDONATO: We received 66 complaints since 2008 about bear poaching in general. We have documented that at least some cases where bears have been killed and just paws and galls have been taken.
MANN: DiDonato shows me photographs of butchered bear paws found in an Asian food market in Brooklyn last year, and another picture of a cub carcass stripped of its paws and gall bladder, with the rest of the animal left to rot.
He says wildlife officials worried that bears might also be poached in neighboring states like Vermont and Pennsylvania and then sold in New York City's Asian neighborhood, where parts from a single animal can be worth up to $1,000.
Heidi Kretser, with the Wildlife Conservation Society, says the new rule requiring that all bear parts be clearly labeled and documented will help clarify how much illegal trade is going on.
HEIDI KRETSER: What we don't know, we don't know. And the poaching could be going on right under our noses, and we just have no idea.
MANN: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says grizzly and black bear poaching for Asian markets has been a problem nationwide for years, with recent investigations and prosecutions in the Pacific Northwest and several Southern states.
Some environmentalists wanted New York's legislature to ban the trade altogether, but black bear populations are stable here and across the country. And dealer Bud Piserchia says a legal market for bear parts should be allowed.
PISERCHIA: The State of New York wants to utilize the entire bear. They don't want anything thrown away. It's a resource, whether it's the hide or claws.
MANN: Hunters and dealers in New York caught with undocumented paws or gall bladders will now face fines up to $5,000.
For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann in New York Adirondack Mountains.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.