Harrisburg — Pennsylvania Game Commission law enforcement efforts have taken on an international quality of late, the agency’s board members learned at their recent work session here.
Commission law enforcement chief Richard Palmer briefed commissioners on a recently concluded, 18-month undercover investigation conducted by the agency’s Special Investigations Unit into the poaching and sales of body parts of Pennsylvania bears and porcupines.
Those animals bring high prices, he said, in the Asian medicinal market.
According to Palmer, director of the commission’s Bureau of Wildlife Protection, the operation started out focusing on the bear gall trade, but ended up being much broader.
It concluded with the arrest of four Vietnamese nationals in Cumberland and Perry counties, and two were sent to jail on $100,000 secured bond.
“In this particular case, we ended up having some direct connection with some Vietnamese people who are purchasing their bear galls for international sale,” he told commissioners. “That also expanded into the sale of porcupines.
“We also saw the purchase of bear meat – this is the first time we have seen that. That’s kind of new on the scene. The traditional Chinese medicinal market creates a demand for bear galls, paws, skulls and that sort of thing, but the bear meat broke some new ground for us.”
Palmer explained that commission officers set up a sting operation, operating a multiple counties buy-and-bust operation.
“We sold them seven bear galls, which that in of itself was a felony, and we took them down right at that time, retrieved the money and took them in for arraignment,” he said. “The judge actually sent them to jail, so that shows the courts are taking this seriously as well.”
Palmer pointed out that the trade in bear galls and porcupines is lucrative for poachers. Commission operatives, he said, are seeing the standard price for a bear gall between $100 and $150. The buyer then gets between $1,000 and $1,500 at the middle level.
“By the time it hits the end market, where it is ground, it's probably in the neighborhood of $50 a gram, and that’s significant because that makes the gall worth $5,000 to $10,000, depending on the size,” Palmer told commissioners.
Regarding the black market for porcupines, Palmer was less certain about prices and profits. Those animals’ quills are especially valued in traditional Chinese medicine.
“We are still gathering intelligence, and we are really not sure what the export rate might be,” he said.
“What we do know is that a breeding pair of porcupines taken from the wild would be $600 to $800 a pair, which is about one quarter to one half of the average [Asian] person’s annual income.”
The undercover operation yielded valuable intelligence for the Game Commission, Palmer noted, and unfortunately the agency will need it because he sees no easing in the illegal demand for Keystone State animals and their body parts.
The Asian medicinal market is increasingly enticing poachers in the Keystone State.
“It was kind of an interesting case for us, and it was some new stuff we had not seen before,” he said. “I think it shows the value of our Special Investigations Unit, because it is pretty tough for a uniformed officer to sell into this commercial-type market.”
This year, like every year, the unlawful taking of wildlife, is the most common violation dealt with by Game Commission conservation officers, Palmer told commissioners. He said the number of violations is up very slightly over last year, close to average.
“But I think that is pretty amazing, given the fact that we are probably at 27 vacancies with wildlife officers now,” he said. “I wanted to bring it up to tell you that even though the manpower is down, our officers are doing a really good job.”
Commissioner Jay Delaney, of Luzerne County, noted that citations filed by commission officers have a “phenomenal” 96 percent conviction rate, which Commissioner Robert Schlemmer, of Westmoreland County, called “solid work.”
“It shows the officers’ technical competence. We are very proud of that kind of conviction rate,” Palmer said. “It shows the quality of their work.
“When you look at the total number of violations – over 20,000 – that’s pretty good for 600 officers. And also this year, they wrote 6,537 citations and we gave 13,607 warnings, so that is certainly indicative that officers are using good discretion in writing basically two warnings for every violation.”