Volume 92, Issue 68

Thursday, January 28, 1999


Stealing Beauty

Stealing Beauty

Gazette File Photo
THE RESULTING CARNAGE OF THE ILLEGAL TRADE OF ANIMAL PARTS. This mountain gorilla killed by poachers was one of many killed for tourist trade of gorilla heads and hands.

By Ciara Rickard

Gazette Staff

Though its necessity has long since waned in most areas of the Western world, hunting has remained a favoured sport practiced by many in modern society. While there are laws monitoring this activity, there is still a great deal of illegal hunting which goes on in Canada and around the world in order to feed a market which craves various animal parts.

Some statistics show poaching has had a devastating impact on animal populations. While some uses of it are medicinal, some are served as delicacies and some of the uses are seen as entirely frivolous.

"Any poaching is not legitimate," says Anthony Marr, biodiversity campaign director for the Western Canada Wilderness Committee. "It's big business, just second to the drug trade and often connected to the same people. Wherever there is a demand, there will be a supply."

Marr has spent a great deal of time and effort trying to educate people and the government about the ill consequences of poaching and the importance of maintaining animal populations. At greatest risk in Canada, he says, are the black and grizzly bears, which are hunted primarily for their gall bladders and their paws.

"We estimate that about 22,000 to 29,000 black bears are killed per year," Marr says. "That's out of a population of about 400,000, so that's about 12 per cent. That is not sustainable. They can't reproduce quickly enough to maintain the population."

Liz White, a director for the Animal Alliance, points out how these numbers may not be accurate. Because poaching is an illegal activity, no one knows about it and therefore no one can know the actual number of bears dying each year.

"The paws are a delicacy in Asian cultures," Marr says. The gall bladders, also for the Asian market, contain cholic acid derivatives, which are considered very valuable and effective medicine by Asians. Though there is a synthetic process to create the same chemicals, most Asians will still opt for the medicine from the bear.

"Tradition has a powerful sway over people's actions," Marr says. "Traditional medicine has a mixture of medicine and mystique."

The market for most animal parts is centred in Asia where tradition dictates what is the best cure for a variety of ailments. The reason there is so much poaching in Canada is because Asian bear populations have already been depleted from hunting, so they've had to go elsewhere, Marr says. He is also quick to point out that not all Asians use medicine or food containing bear parts.

"It's a different cultural attitude in Canada than in Asia toward the use of animals," White says. "Asians are horrified by the fact that we hunt bears to wear their skins – they'd never do that. But they see nothing wrong with killing the animal, eating it and using its parts for various reasons."

Bears aren't the only animals at risk. Seals in Canada are hunted for their penises as they are considered to have aphrodisiac powers, White says. Tigers are also hunted for this purpose.

"There's a growing push for aphrodisiacs from tusks, bones and seal penis," White says. "Some people have joked that Viagra will be the salvation of the animals."

However, not everyone considers this aspect of the illegal trade of animal parts to be particularly serious.

"The people who use it [aphrodisiacs made from animal parts] are mostly fringe groups, so animal groups don't consider it a threat," says Julie Thomson-Delaney, project leader for the wildlife trade program, at the World Wildlife Fund.

"I can't even say whether it actually works," she adds.

According to Thomson-Delaney, the real threat is the demand for animal parts for medicinal purposes, for which not only bears are a target, but also tigers and seahorses.

"As far as western science is concerned, they are legit medicines and do work," Thomson-Delaney says. "The problem is with populations – there's just too many people putting pressure on animal populations."

It has been widely publicized that elephants, rhinoceroses, gorillas, deer and musk deer are just a few examples of animals who have been and are still being illegally hunted for various reasons. Rhino horns are used to carve daggers in Yemen and are also used in East Asian medicines. Elephants are still being poached for their ivory tusks, used in jewelry and other decorative pieces.

"Sometimes it's for something really asinine, like gorilla paws for ashtrays," Marr says.

Such novelty items, as well as gorilla heads, were sold to tourists in great quantities during the 1970s and helped deplete the mountain gorilla population, says Jennifer Toth, executive assistant at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

"It was really bad back then because people were killing them left, right and centre," she says.

The mountain gorilla population now sits at 650, though most of the poaching has ceased as a result of the establishment of stricter laws, in which primatologist Fossey played a key role. Fossey's murder at the hands of poachers is testimony to the seriousness of the issue.

Marr has also faced much opposition in his quest to end poaching and hunting for sport. He has gone on tours around the province of British Columbia giving talks on the ills of poaching. Still, hunters and poachers were always following him wherever he went.

"Whenever they knew I was coming to a place they would show up in force – maybe 100 people," Marr says. He claims there were usually about 20 supporters at the talks. "They try to be very intimidating, very rough and abusive. Sometimes I can't finish my presentation. I always try to have media present.

"Quite often at the end as I was leaving, they'd be standing in the form of a wall between me and my car, so I'd have to walk right through them," Marr recalls. "I've even been chased on the highway."

There was one incident in January 1998 where Marr was attacked by a hunter or poacher. It occurred after an evening at his parents' home when he went to his car to return home. He says the attacker punched him in the face a few times and left, muttering something about the attack being a warning.

"That attack was an isolated incident done by someone on his own," Marr says. "The 'hunter fraternity' have tried to get people to not commit acts of violence."

Some of those involved in recreational hunting are also very much against poaching. Terry Quinney, provincial co-ordinator of fish and wildlife services for the Ontario Federation of Hunters and Anglers, says his organization is involved in laws preventing poaching and penalizing those who break the poaching laws.

"The fees we paid for [hunting] licences go directly to the government to pay for the laws," Quinney says. "We're also involved in a province-wide anti-poaching campaign through Crime Stoppers that helps catch poachers."

Though there are laws in place to protect vulnerable wildlife, it's difficult to enforce them in Canada's vast wilderness, where there is much space and not enough enforcement officials.

"Personally, I believe that there's really good legislation in Canada and the [United States], but it's not properly implemented," says Andrea Gaski, director of research for TRAFFIC North America. "I guess they don't consider poaching of high priority."

Environment Canada is in the process of drafting regulations to help cut down on foods and medicines containing parts of animals which are not legally allowed to be used, Thomson-Delaney says.

Many of these animal parts find their way into Asian-Canadian communities. A restaurant in Brampton was recently fined for serving bear paw soup, White says.

"We need to target people who've been doing this all their lives and see nothing wrong with it," White says. "If we can change their minds we have a fighting chance – otherwise we're going to lose [endangered animals]."

Asian countries have been relying on these medicines for centuries so to them it's completely normal. However, this market is growing rapidly and the animal populations on which they prey are depleting rapidly.

According to White, the goal is to change perceptions and show people the effects of their reliance on animal parts. If consumers' attitudes are changed, he explains the poachers will be out of business and there may be a future for threatened wildlife.

Gazette File Photo
GETTING CAUGHT IN THE CROSSFIRE. This male Rwandan mountain gorilla was killed during a period of civil unrest, his death harming an already precarious population.

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Copyright The Gazette 1999