While Australia has no native bears, the sad reality is that bear parts are being illegally imported into Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand at an alarming rate.
Illegal wildlife trade includes millions of plants and animals imported for a wide range of purposes, such as traditional medicine, luxury ornaments, hunting trophies, pets and fashion.
In a recent study, published in Pacific Conservation Biology, researchers from the University of Adelaide, the Monitor Conservation Research Society and the Wildlife Justice Commission examined the demand for bear parts or products in the two Australasian countries.
They found that enforcement agencies seized almost 800 bear body parts or medical derivatives between 2007 and 2018. The seizures involved five of the eight surviving bear species, including polar bears.
“While neither Australia nor New Zealand have any native bear species, it is clear that there is still demand for bear products outside their native habitat,” says lead Author Phill Cassey of the University of Adelaide.
“Most of the seized products were from traditional medicines, and bear bile farming is a particularly insidious threat to the conservation and welfare of bears globally. However, a large number of seizures were also hunting trophies and bear body parts, including teeth and claws.”
Illegal bear trade is a global issue
While most of the illegal bear trade imports came from China or North America, the team identified 33 countries from all continents except Antarctica that were involved. Bears were sourced from the wild, but some bear-bile products – a common component of some medical derivatives – were extracted at ‘bear bile farms’.
“Our study highlights that the threat to bears through demand for bear parts and products is not limited to the country where they are native, but also through illegal trade in non-range countries,” says Cassey.
“It is important that biosecurity and environmental enforcement agencies in Australia and New Zealand are supported in their roles to reduce demand for illegal wildlife products and work with source countries to combat wildlife smuggling.”
Illegal wildlife trade poses a threat to environmental biosecurity globally, and represents an unsustainable industry that contributes to the decline of threatened species. However, the widespread nature of countries involved in the trade makes it difficult for Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand to address the problem alone.
“This study illustrates the international nature of illegal trade in bear parts and products and the need for increased international effort to eliminate this crime,” says co-author Dr Chris Shepherd from Monitor Conservation Research Society, based in Canada.
Deborah Devis is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a Bachelor of Liberal Arts and Science (Honours) in biology and philosophy from the University of Sydney, and a PhD in plant molecular genetics from the University of Adelaide.
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