The global animal trade - for pets, skins for clothing, and animal parts for traditional Asian medicines - is estimated at $20 billion a year. The United States acts as both a consumer and a supplier. Such exotic items as tiger bones, rhino horns, and bear gallbladders are commonly used in Asia to treat ailments. The products are also popular in Asian American immigrant communities for their supposed curative powers. Federal laws and international treaties prohibit the international traffic of tiger and rhino.
Bears are a different story. North American Black Bears are not endangered. But the decline of bear species in Asia has opened an underground market that is a potential threat to black bears on U.S. public lands.
Visitors to Shenandoah National Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains explore the park on foot, in canoes and on horseback. Its forested landscape is a haven for dozens of rare and endangered species. It also has a healthy population of several hundred Virginia Black Bear.
Hunting here is against the law. And, it is poachers that worry Supervisory Special Agent Skip Wissinger. He says Operation Viper - a recent sting conducted by the National Park Service and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries - uncovered a domestic underground market for black bear parts.
"What we saw is that there was a rather developed black market structure involving several layers of people that were trafficking in illegal wildlife parts and not just a supplier to an end consumer, but rather multiple rungs on a black market ladder or structure," he explained.
It's not just the bears of the Shenandoah that are being poached. American ginseng, a popular medicinal ingredient in traditional Chinese remedies, is a native plant that grows throughout the park. It can cost as much as $350 for less than half a kilo on the black market? and Agent Wissinger says it's being harvested illegally.
"There has been a very significant decrease in the numbers of that plant species left growing in the park and it is currently listed federally endangered species," he said.
Traditional medicines are popular in Asian American communities across the United States, where legal synthetic alternatives are also available. The sting, however, caught consumers in search of the real thing. More than 40 Korean Americans bought wild ginseng and bear parts at a rural hunting store in the Shenandoah Valley set up for Operation Viper. Buyers learned about the products in ads in Asian language newspapers.
Jun Koo, director of the Washington chapter of the Korean American Coalition, an advocacy group in the Korean American community, believes that while the illegal trade should be stopped, the sting operation left a bitter wake of prejudice and discrimination.
"An example would be just very recently at the office we have received a few e-mails stating their disgust and even some harsh words letting us, the Korean American Coalition know of their personal feelings," he explained. "And that is what many of the Korean Americans fear. Not so much the sting operation itself, but the fear of the aftermath, the side effects, the consequences of the coverage and such."
Special Agent Skip Wissinger disagrees.
"There was no community targeted whatsoever," he said. "There was an effort to identify the people involved in the trafficking. And, those people as it turned out to be primarily Asian."
Agent Wissinger says each person prosecuted was made aware of the legal violations.
"Yet, they continued to proceed and violate the law and in some cases very clearly expressed a lack of concern of being caught or apprehended," he said.
Skirble: Do you feel that this operation will help to deter the crime?
Wissinger: I would like to think so, but I think that the number of people that we are currently are investigating and prosecuting a small part of the overall domestic as well as international market.
Skirble: What do you feel that it is going to take to stop this poaching?
Wissinger: One of the things that will greatly help is public awareness of the impact of commercializing our natural resources that are otherwise protected either by state or federal law, and by public involvement hopefully further information will be developed where these environmental crimes continue to occur.
Skip Wissinger says Operation Viper is a wake up call to learn more about the consequences of the illegal market of natural resources. The agent says what surprised investigators was that so much of the prosecution was related to trafficking and consumption of what appears to be an expanding market in the United States.