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BLAGOVESCHENSK, Russia (NYT) It was a routine arrest, warranting only a brief mention in the local newspaper, Amur Pravda. Customs agents, suspicious of a woman’s bulky clothing, discovered she had tape wrapped around her torso.
An illicit trade in animal parts has begun in Blagoveschensk.
Removing it, they found the contraband: several large, furry bear paws.
Closed for decades, the border between Russia and China has been creaking open in recent years, allowing more trade and travel but also clearing the way for a peculiar cross-border criminal enterprise in animal parts for Chinese medicine and cooking.
“It is very widespread just now,” Aleksei L. Vaisman, a senior coordinator for Traffic Europe-Russia, a group sponsored by WWF that monitors trade in wild animals, said of the illicit trade in animal parts in the Far East.
Not only bear paws but also bear gallbladders — highly valued for their medicinal and aphrodisiac qualities — frogs, tiger bones, deer musk and the genitals of spotted deer are smuggled daily into China.
But it is bear paws, a ritual dish for the Chinese, that are the most common commodities in this underground market, Mr. Vaisman said. He estimated that thousands were smuggled each year.
While illegal and, to most people perhaps, offensive, the traffic apparently poses no threat to the robust Siberian population of Russian brown bears, a relative of grizzlies, which is rising despite the paw trade.
The real problem with the bear paw trade, the authorities say, is that it creates smuggling channels for two other species — the Amur tiger and the Far Eastern leopard — that are highly endangered. Experts put the population of wild Amur tigers at 450, with about 30 poached each year. Only about 40 of the leopards remain in the wild.
Those channels come in many forms, and are growing busier every year, experts say. Hidden under scrap metal in trucks, slipped across the frozen Amur River in the winter or stuffed amid clothes in suitcases and carried by stony-faced smugglers, the bear paws find their way to China despite the best efforts of the Russian authorities.
On Feb. 8, Russian border patrol agents stopped two trucks carrying 447 bear paws in the village of Leninskoye, just a few miles from the Chinese border, and arrested two Russians and a Chinese national. The cargo weighed 515 kilograms, or 1,133 pounds.
Here in Blagoveschensk, it is not hard to find bear paws for sale; a casual inquiry at a meat counter can make the connection.
A saleswoman’s tight-eyed, suspicious stare greets customers at one dingy meat market. Under frosted glass lies an assortment of sausages, beef cutlets, frozen chickens and game meat — musk deer venison, bear dumplings, wild boar. This, of course, is not where the real money is made. “Call that number on the wall,” the saleswoman says, pointing to a bulletin board.
Soon, in the darkened interior of a parked Lexus sport-utility vehicle, a bear paw deal is going down. “Volodya, hi, do you have any paws?” a broker says into his cellphone. “I have a guy who wants paws.” No luck.
“Sasha, hi, do you have any paws?” he asks another source. “No, somebody just wants to look.” A pause. “Great, we’ll be there tomorrow.”
The rendezvous is set for a ramshackle building beside a potholed road on the outskirts of Blagoveschensk. The hunter pads into a back room, pops open a freezer and reveals the goods: four gnarled, frozen paws.
The paws come from bears killed legally by hunters and also by poachers. But because any export of paws is illegal, the entire trade is banned, Yuri N. Privalov, the minister of natural resources for the Amur region, said in an interview. He conceded that the illicit trade was thriving all the same.
Efforts to stanch the traffic run up against the powerful lure of quick money or, experts say, a man’s need to slake an alcoholic thirst — though seemingly only in a Siberian village would this seem an easy way to get a drink.
“A guy has nothing to do in a village,” explained Oleg V. Lezin, the owner of a taxidermist shop in Blagoveschensk. “He takes a dog and tracks down a bear in the forest, kills it and chops off the paws. He can sell those paws for 1,500 rubles a kilogram. Then he comes into town and gets something to drink, and he’s all right until the next bear.” Those 1,500 rubles would be worth about $50.
The paw trade has damaged hunting traditions with deep roots in Siberia, the taxidermist said, turning a hallowed male winter ritual into a mercantile exercise. Traditionally, Russian bear hunters would find a den burrowed into the roots of a cedar tree, gingerly approach and take a position on the opposite side of the tree from the opening. Then they would make a clamor, or throw in a burning plastic bag. When the bear scrambled out, snorting and angry, the hunters would lean around the tree and shoot it.
But now, he said, many Russians simply hunt at night from trucks equipped with spotlights.
A few years back, according to Roman A. Chikachov, a game warden in Blagoveschensk, Russian hunters took to passing off the more common wild boar gallbladders as bear gallbladders. Once they discovered this ruse, the Chinese buyers, already suspicious, became far more cautious in their dealings. The Russians, he said, are still scratching their heads over how the Chinese were able to tell the two apart.
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