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Popular Science: One bear, please! or Bear trade in the Czech Republic

No, it is not a mistake and it should not be beer, the Czech favourite alcoholic drink. It should not even be a teddy bear. Even though it may surprise you, in the Czech Republic, there exists quite a high demand for various bear species and/or their body parts originating from abroad. The details of the current il-/legal trade have been summarised in a study led by Chris R. Shepherd and co-authored by three members of the Institute of Environmental Studies of the Faculty of Science of the Charles University – Jitka Kufnerová, Tomáš Cajthaml and Jaroslava Frouzová.

The illegal trade with both animals and plants is still blooming worldwide and it is one of the main obstacles to global biodiversity preservation. When talking specifically about fauna, many individuals still want to have wild animals as pets, sample their meat, use them as traditional medicine or have them at home in the form of luxury goods, ornaments or trophies. They are (probably) unaware that by doing so they contribute to major declines in the numbers of the concerned species and even to their extinction.

Bear skins with heads and paws. Photo: Dominika Formanová.

The list of species endangered by illegal trade is constantly growing and it also includes all eight extant bear species. Europe is considered one of the biggest importers of bear trophies. In the Czech Republic, illegal trade with bear parts was reported, while no hunting of the local brown bear (Ursus arctos) is permitted there. The researchers thus wanted to know what was driving the trade and where the origins of the imports were. They analysed all illegally imported bears or their parts seized by the Czech Environmental Inspectorate. In order to understand the market, they also investigated the legal import registered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Trade Database.

Bear skulls. Photo: Dominika Formanová.

In the years 2010–2018, 495 bear parts of at least six species (mostly trophies – such as skins, skulls and taxidermies – as well as meat) were legally imported from 14 foreign countries, mainly from Canada and Russia. About 15 live animals of six species were imported from eight countries (e.g., Russia, India, Myanmar) for zoos, circus/exhibitions and captive breeding. Only five of them originated from wild populations; the others were from captivity.

Nevertheless, between 2005–2020, the Czech Environmental Inspectorate also discovered 36 illegal imports from eight foreign countries containing 346 items in total. Here, most cases were bear parts, trophies (mainly from Canada, Russia and the USA) and traditional medicinal derivatives from bear bile and gall bladder (mainly from Vietnam and China). However, in rare cases, even souvenirs, jewellery (from bear teeth or claws), bear bile in vodka and two live bear cubs were seized. In some cases, the seized items were later returned, as the required documents were provided retrospectively.

A necklace from bear claws. Photo: Dominika Formanová.

Trophies are thus the main trade article and the authors also realised that claws for jewellery and talismans were also quite common. The main exporters to the Czech Republic, both in the legal and illegal trade, were Canada and Russia. It is a question why there were so many illegal imports when legal import is authorised. The most plausible explanation is that the smuggled items were obtained illegally in the country of origin.

Illegaly imported living bear cubs. Photo: Dominika Formanová.

All countries involved in these cases are Parties to the CITES and are currently collaborating on measures to stop this illegal trade. In the Czech Republic, penalties for bear smuggling are up to 2–8 years of imprisonment, depending on the species and on whether the smuggler acts independently or as a member of an organized group. If the case involves 25 and more specimens, the fines can go up to CZK 1,5 million (or 2 million in case of an organised group). However, study authors found that the actual financial penalties in the examined cases were far below the maximum (they reached only several thousands CZK).

Bear bile powder. Photo: Zdeněk Novák.

The researchers thus recommend increasing the fines to discourage the smugglers, improve the monitoring of the imported items, educate the general public and raise awareness among the traditional medicine consumers about the negative consequences of illegal trade.

Shepherd CR, Kufnerová J, Cajthaml T, Frouzová J, Gomez L (2020). Bear trade in the Czech Republic: an analysis of legal and illegal international trade from 2005 to 2020. European Journal of Wildlife Research. 66:92.

Darina Koubínová

Published: Feb 22, 2021 03:30 PM

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