COVID-19 Triggers Possible Poaching Threat to Wild Spectacled Bears

The illegal wildlife trade has a significant negative impact on the survival of many species, and now with the global coronavirus pandemic, there is an emerging risk that may trigger increased poaching of wild bears.

The Chinese government recently recommended the use of ‘Tan Re Qing’ to treat COVID-19, a traditional medicine product that contains bear bile.  The World Health Organization indicates that no treatment and no cure exists yet for COVID-19. There is also no scientific evidence that bile — a digestive fluid extracted from a bear’s gall bladder — is an effective treatment. Promoting the use of bear bile as a COVID-19 treatment may affect bears already in captivity in Asia in the bear bile farming industry and trigger illegal capture of bears in the wild. This poses a poaching risk to all bear populations including our vulnerable dry forest spectacled bear population in northern Peru.

It is critical to manage this misinformation, so SBC is taking action in the communities where we work to ensure local people are given credible facts and to stop poaching for bear bile before it starts.

The illegal wildlife trade for medicinal purposes and the local preference for traditional practices over western medicine are still widespread in South America and Peru, particularly in rural areas. This impacts spectacled bears; even with protection from hunting under Peruvian law they are still being poached for use of their body parts (bones, teeth, fat) in traditional remedies. Markets selling illegal wildlife products, including bear body parts, exist in Chiclayo, a city just 40 miles from our conservation center. 

Spectacled bear fang from Chiclayo market in Lambayeque, Peru
Spectacled bear penile bones from Chiclayo market

With this very local industry and the potential demand for bear bile as a COVID-19 treatment, an increase in poaching is a serious potential threat to spectacled bears in the dry forest.  Not only is this already a small, endangered bear population impacted by habitat loss and fragmentation, but the close proximity of the dry forest to local communities makes them highly vulnerable to hunters. 

Empowering communities with knowledge and scientific information is our best solution for mitigating this risk to dry forest spectacled bears.  We use data on bears collected from camera traps and direct field observations in local ecosystems to educate people about the importance of bears to the natural environment, the local threats to their survival, and laws in place to protect them.  After 10 years of engaging communities in conservation, we have built strong relationships with local people who have come to see bear conservation as a benefit and SBC as a trusted organization.

When quarantine orders are lifted, we will continue our direct community outreach to get the message to local communities that bear bile is not a treatment for COVID-19 and we will engage with Peruvian authorities so that they understand the consequences of this issue. This is not only for the protection of spectacled bears, but also to help ensure the health of people in local communities.

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