Illegal hunting threatens South America's only bear species

Shamans believe that parts of the body of this endangered species – such as penile bones, teeth and fat – have healing properties. The products are easily found in Peru.

Chachapoyas, Peru The woman on the market stalls fills a glass with a reddish liquid, shouting to announce the composition of the mixture: light rum, seven types of tree bark, honey, pollen, snake head, male huanarpo plant and the main ingredient: the penile bone of a grizzly bear.

The drink, called Seven Roots, resembles a magic potion that Gargamel would use to capture the Smurfs. But it exists, and is one of many folk healings prescribed by traditional shamans or healers of Peru.

"If you have sexual impotence, shave off a part of the bear's penis bone and put it in the drink," says the woman, whose shop in Chachapoyas offers several shamanic cures. "However, if you want to get the strength of that animal, you need to put whole bones," she adds.

The bitter taste of the drink does not differ much from the taste of any other cheap rum I have tasted. The difference is what is hidden: the illegal trade in body parts of grizzly bear, also known as Andean bear. This is the same species that inspired the creation of the bear Paddington, British cartoon character.

I ask her how she can get parts of the grizzly bear.

"We had them brought from the forest to Lamas," she says, referring to an indigenous community in the region of San Martín in northern Peru. "You have to shoot the heart. If he makes a mistake, he can attack because he's a very strong beast. "

Does she worry that bears can be hunted to extinction?

"It's money!" She retorts. "We won. The hunters also win. With that money, they buy rice, oil and sugar. "

Grizzly bears (the only bear species in South America) are found in Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela, as well as Peru. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which defines the conservation status of species, classifies these animals as "vulnerable". Its population, with a large area of occurrence, was reduced to about 13,000 to 18,000 individuals, according to the latest IUCN estimate, published in 2017. It is a decline from the estimated total of 18,250 individuals in 1996, when the IUCN noted that "in view of the area occupied by bears, that amount could be much higher." In Peru, there are believed to be approximately 5,000 bears.

Because of the vulnerability of the grizzly bear, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), a treaty regulating the international trade in wild animals, trade in living bears or parts of their bodies.

In Peru, the protection of bears dates back to 1970, when the ministerial resolution that banned their hunting for an indefinite time was approved. They are also protected by the general law against trafficking in wild animals. Likewise, the hunting and sale of spectacled bears and parts of them are prohibited by the environmental and forestry laws of each of the other countries in their area of occurrence.

However, in spite of the protections, it is evident, at least in Peru, that the exploitation of sunglasses for shamanic uses is widespread. I traveled undercover to five regions of the country to document the illegal sale or use of body parts of the grizzly bear. I witnessed the use of parts of more than 20 bears in markets of Lima, Chiclayo, Chachapoyas, Tarapoto and Yurimaguas. I saw more than 11 liters of "bear paste" (the fat of the grizzly bears) on sale. Shamans appreciate the fat, claiming it helps relieve muscle soreness, repair broken bones, shifts, disc hernias, paralysis and curing colds. I also found five brands of a product called "bear balm." This ointment claims to contain bear fat mixed with natural herbal extracts – eucalyptus, camphor and copaiba, among other compounds – and is disclosed as effective for sprains, rheumatism, arthritis, back pain, muscle pain, as well as colds.

The medicinal use of grizzly bear fat dates back to the time of the Incas. The belief in its effectiveness persists in cities and in the interior, although there is no scientific proof that it helps to alleviate any evil.

According to Roxana Rojas-Vera Pinto, director of conservation at the Zoological Society of Frankfurt, some Peruvians hunt the bears in retaliation for the cattle killed by them or for their incursions into the cornfields. She states that everyone knows that bears attacked cattle in 16 national reserves where they are found, in addition to the destruction of cornfields.

Grizzly bears are considered "vulnerable" throughout their area of occurrence in South America. Hunting them in Peru has been banned since 1970.

In addition to man's direct threats to grizzly bears, habitat loss and regional climate change, which are altering vegetation patterns and degrading ecosystems, are also putting pressure on animals, according to the IUCN.

Eye-bears help keep ecosystems in balance. They disperse seeds in the faeces and act as pollinators when transporting the pollen in their dense coat. Rojas says ensuring the bear's habitat in the cloud forests helps protect the river basins that supply water downstream communities.

"I have everything"

About 480 km northwest of Chachapoyas, in the city of Chiclayo, capital of the region of Lambayeque, I met a master shaman. Shorts and flip-flops, with blue-eyed, dazzled cataracts, sat behind the counter in the back of his warehouse.

As I approached, he placed in my hand a notched tooth approximately 7 inches long. Then he poured a mixture of alcohol and water from a small vial over his tooth and asked me to smell it. It is part of the ritual to protect against evil spirits, he said.

How do I know this tooth is from a grizzly bear? I inquired.

"I'm legitimate!" He shot back. "You're talking to a serious man. My parents were shamans. I'm already 90 years old. I'm known internationally. In my warehouse, I have four bear skins. Do you want to see them? It's not anyone who has! I also have jaguar and jaguar skin. I have everything. "

Do you have more bear teeth?

"I'll show you other teeth that are not carved."

Do you sell other parts of the bear body? '

"Ten days ago, I had five bear claws, but I already sold it. Business every day. "

The shaman then screamed for his old assistant: "Bring the white tote bag with holes!"

The bag contained about two dozen teeth, which the shaman claimed to be spectacled bears. He sells them for the equivalent of about $ 60 each and explained that he keeps some for his own use in his protective rituals.

As we talked, he yelled again to his assistant to bring him "the other bag." The shaman then took out six small curved bow-shaped bones: penile bones of spectacled bears, he said, placing them in my right hand (Peruvians call the bones of vinzas).

A shaman in Chiclayo, Peru, says that the penile bones of eyeball bears are "great as an aphrodisiac."

"These I hid," he said. "We can not expose them. Otherwise, the forestry staff appears, I've had problems with them. "With" forest, "he meant the Forestry and Wildlife Agency of Peru, which manages wildlife and national forests. And with "problems," he meant apprehensions of wild animal products.

Did you solve your problems? You solved it, how did you do it?

"Making a deal directly with the officer," he replied.

Vinzas, he continued, are "very good as an aphrodisiac. I scrape until it turns into flour and I wrap it in a bottle of the drink Seven Roots. The bottle costs 500 suns[cerca de R$ 580]. I am Lambayeque's most famous shaman, "he said proudly. "There are people coming to see me from different parts of Peru."

The miracle cream

In the corridor of the La Parada market in Lima, a shaman rubs the "bear paste" (the fat of the grizzly bear) on a woman's arm. The woman expects relief from muscular pain in her arm.

"Give me your hand! Have no fear! As you will carry the paste, you should also take this snake skin to relieve the pain in three days, "he says. The shaman wraps the jiboia skin on her arm.

In Moshoqueque, a market in Chiclayo, a saleswoman shows me the pure fat of the grizzly bear in a half-liter plastic bottle.

I ask her how fat is extracted and if she could get more if I asked.

"The skin fat is removed with a knife and placed in a pan. Then it is melted and packaged, "she says, adding:" in 15 days, the boy brings me more. "

"The hunter brings us the whole bear and we select the parts we want to buy," continues the saleswoman. She shows me what she claims to be a dehydrated bear penis, which sells for just over $ 3,000. She tells him that she pulled it from the body of the bear brought to her. "Vince is very good at curing sexual impotence. But I have only this, I sold the other one, "he explains.

One of the bear balm products I saw contained a label that contained the name Vergel SA However, when I searched the open source database of the National Customs and Tax Administration (Sunat), the body responsible for collecting taxes and identifying contraband and tax evasion, I did not find any records on behalf of Vergel SA

An investigation conducted between 2002 and 2007 by Judith Figueroa, wildlife ecologist at the Peruvian Association for Research and Conservation of Biodiversity, was equally fruitless. "Of the 16 different presentations observed of bear balms, 81.2% were unregistered or false according to the National Superintendency of Tax Administration." According to Figueroa, "it is probable that Sunat was not aware of sales of bear balm made by natural or legal persons. ''

Figueroa further noted that bear balm products had labels with varying images, such as polar bears, brown bears, American black bears, and pandas. The sellers assured him, however, that the ointment was actually made with fat from grizzly bears (false labels were probably intended to deceive authorities).

Complying with the law, reducing demand

Sam Shanee, director of Neotropical Primate Conservation, a UK-based charity with regional branches in Peru and Colombia that combats the trafficking of wild animals in South America, says the problem is more serious in Peru . Although the fines are stricter now, he says, "the trafficking of wild animals is more hidden – it is no longer so open, but it still persists" (the fine for hunting, storage, collection and offer for sale of any products and derivatives of Wild animals increased from R $ 700 to almost R $ 6 thousand. In addition, Peru's penal code allows a prison sentence of up to five years for crimes against wild animals).

Earlier, when you went to the market, you saw animals or parts of animals for sale, says Shanee. Now, instead of openly exposing illicit goods, store owners can, for example, put a pet parrot as a code signal for customers. Shanee told me that if you ask the sellers, "they bring monkeys, birds, sloths or whatever you want, practically as an order."

He says authorities are restricted due to lack of coordination. "Ecological police, regional environmental authorities and public prosecutors have to work together to carry out seizure operations. That's why it's very difficult for everyone to play and that's a big weakness. "

Yuri Beraún, a specialist in wildlife management at the Ministry of the Environment, says that "institutions responsible for enforcing the law have technical and operational difficulties because they do not have the equipment to transport the animals they seize." In addition, he claims to be high turnover of law enforcement teams.

To compensate for what Shanee regards as law enforcement shortcomings, he created the Fauna Report project in 2014. This initiative allows ordinary people to anonymously report wildlife trafficking to Neotropical Primate Conservation, the organization, in turn, alerts the competent authorities.

However, Shanee states that of the 175 complaints filed between 2014 and 2016, 74% did not result in law enforcement actions and 26% resulted in the rescue of an animal. Only 3% led to investigations conducted by public prosecutors, and of the total number of complaints, approximately 15 were related to parts of the grizzly bear (Neotropical Primate Conservation participated in the rescue of seven live bears trapped in captivity). Of the 619 criminal actions with wild animals filed in Peru since 2010, none involved grizzly bears, according to data provided by the Ministry of Justice.

Henry Carhuatocto, president of the Institute of Legal Defense for the Environment and Sustainable Development, a Peruvian non-profit organization based in Lima, says it is crucial to reduce the demand for shamanic cures. "As a strategy in environmental litigation, not only those who kill bears, but also those who feed the demand for their products, should be punished. So we close the cycle, "he explains.

However, he adds that Peru needs more judges focused on the environmental area. "I think the glass is half full. What we lack are judges specializing in environmental issues. The only region that has an environmental forum is Madre de Dios and it is not allowed to bring to prison someone who commits a crime of trafficking of wild animals in another region. "

Flor María Vega, national coordinator of the Special Public Prosecutor's Office for Environmental Affairs of Peru (also known by its acronym in Spanish, Fema), agrees. "We consider it important that judges and public prosecutors acquire specialized knowledge in the management of wildlife to understand the importance of their conservation and to unify criteria that guarantee environmental justice in crimes of trafficking of wild animals."

The orange-brown liquid from the jars in front of the plastic bag of this wild animal store in Lima, Peru, is sold as gecko bear fat. Its medicinal use goes back to the time of the Incas, but there is no scientific proof of any healing power.

Vega also points out that Fema does not have the resources to monitor markets where wild animal products are traded illicitly infringing Cites, much less to make the searches and seizures demanded by the Peruvian authorities of Cites.

"The number of staff specialized in this work is insufficient, considering the bureaucracy of each cabinet," says Vega. "Thus, we can assume that the initiative of the Peruvian government to implement the CITES convention and to curb the illegal trafficking of wild animals is not working completely."

Vega says that a possible aid would be the Ministry of the Environment to send funds to support inspections made by Fema. Currently, there are no resources reserved for this, she laments.

Beraún of the Ministry of the Environment says that the Peruvian National Strategy for Reducing the Illegal Traffic of Wild Fauna has led to significant advances in identifying the main trafficking routes for spectacled bears. The next step, he explains, "is to conduct intelligence actions and punish not only the final consumer, but the one who inflicts the greatest damage: the middleman."

The day after my visit to the Chachapoyas shamanic store, I went back there. The woman's father, a shaman master she claims to be a specialist in different types of magic, was on the floor brushing the skin of a grizzly bear.

For customers who come to the store to get body parts of the grizzly bear or potions containing parts of the bear, that view would be reassuring because it would show that products sold as derivatives of grizzly bears are very likely to be authentic.

Via National Geographic

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