One wouldn't think the state game board would spend time pondering the effects of Viagra, but the sex drug took on new meaning for wildlife managers this month.
Alaska Board of Game member Mike Fleagle told a Juneau audience Viagra was killing the market for bear gallbladders a conclusion he had taken from people testifying before a board committee.
"The main reason the (gallbladder) market has fallen off is Viagra," Fleagle told the board.
When the drug came onto the U.S. market in 1998, it was hailed not only as a revolutionary treatment for sexual impotence, but as a potential death knell for illegal sales of bear gallbladders. The fluid in the bear organs is thought in some Asian cultures to enhance sexual performance and dealers in the Far East reportedly pay up to $20,000 for one. With Viagra on the market, some people figured demand for the costly gallbladders would fade and fewer bears would die at the hands of poachers. For a moment this month in Juneau, it seemed they were right.
Has Viagra overshadowed the market for bear gallbladders and given poachers reason to stop their killing sprees? Not likely, said a number of experts in the field.
People in Alaska and most other states are prohibited from selling bear gallbladders or most other parts of the bruins. It's a felony in California, but gallbladder sales there are a big business on the black market. Enforcement officers estimate poachers take roughly 1,500 black bears a year.
"The money is in the gallbladder," said Fred Coale, deputy chief of California's wildlife enforcement branch. "Sometimes we find the bears dead shot and just the gallbladder taken. They leave the whole carcass."
Coale said California enforcement officers 18 months ago raided one of the largest Asian apothecary shops on the West Coast and seized a dozen bear gallbladders. He said the poachers sell the organs for $200 to $400 each to merchants, who illegally sell them to customers for $2,000 dried and the gallbladders fetch 10 times that amount in Asia. He said one suspect, as part of a plea bargain, offered evidence of illegal sales, including a receipt for a bear gallbladder the suspect had sold in Korea for $20,000.
"There's still money involved in poaching bears here," Coale said.
Because the sales are illegal, it's difficult to measure the number of transactions and to track trends. Although Coale doesn't know whether Viagra has put a dent in California's black market sales of gallbladders, he suspects the market is "still very lucrative." He said even if Viagra encroached on gallbladder consumption, the illegal killing would continue because other parts of the bears are valuable, too.
"They also use the paws for paw soup, or eye teeth for ornamental jewelry," he said.
Not only that, the gallbladders have other medicinal values beyond treating impotence, said Franco D'Angelo, an enforcement officer with the Alaska Fish and Wildlife Protection Division.
D'Angelo late last year led an undercover sting operation near Talkeetna where a game guide unwittingly took enforcement agents on an illegal bear hunt. After a brown bear was killed, the guide insisted on keeping the gallbladder for himself. D'Angelo said officers later searched the guide's home and found 12 bear gallbladders, which he had planned to sell on the black market to Korean buyers. Viagra has not killed demand for the organs because some in the Asian community also use them to treat ailments other than sexual dysfunction, he said.
"The bear gallbladder is more for medicinal (use), not so much for an aphrodisiac. It's heavily rooted in the Asian culture to where I don't think (Viagra) will lessen the demand for the bear gallbladders," D'Angelo said. "Viagra doesn't mean no more bears are going to be poached."
Dr. Ida Chin, a trained specialist in Oriental herbs, said the most common use of bear gallbladders is "probably for sexual dysfunction," but she agreed with D'Angelo that the organs are widely used to treat other medical problems.
"Some cancer patients use it to boost their energy. Some people use it to detoxify their body," said Chin, an immigrant from China practicing acupuncture in Anchorage.
Juneau biologist Steve Peterson hunts bears and uses their gallbladders to treat his aches and pains that's legal as long as he doesn't sell the organs.
"I hunt black bears and I believe in using all you can. I don't see any reason you should throw it away," said Peterson, who learned how to process the gallbladders from a Korean.
Peterson said the organ contains a liquid, which he dries into "mahogany-brown crystals." He grinds the crystals into a powder, puts a "pinch" in a drink and consumes it to relieve his chronic shoulder pain.
"For sore muscles or inflamed muscles I think it can work for people," said Peterson, who also feels more energy after using the elixir. "I've taken it quite a few times and it has worked for me."
Though he's a believer in the healing powers of bear gallbladders, Peterson dismisses claims the organs are worth "more than cocaine" in the Orient. So does Gary Schroeder of Idaho, where the sale of bear gallbladders is legal.
"You hear they're worth thousands of dollars, what a joke," Schroeder said. "They're not worth a hundred bucks."
Schroeder owns Moscow Hide and Fur, an animal-parts store selling teeth, claws, hooves and sinew any vestige of almost any creature. One body part not advertised on his Web site: bear gallbladders. He can legally sell them, he just can't find buyers.
"It's such a small part of our business, it's an afterthought," said Schroeder, who puts a $50 price on an average-size gallbladder of 3 ounces. "The only reason I buy them (to sell) is because it's better than leaving them laying out in the woods."
Has Schroeder ever had a market for bear gallbladders? Several years ago Asian students from the local universities bought them, he said. But sales dried up in the late 1990s during an economic crisis in Asia.
"We had a lot of Korean and Chinese students here, but when the economy went bad in the Far East a lot of the (Asian) students went back home or got tight with their money," Schroeder said.
He argues if the organs were worth what some people say, poachers would stop their killing sprees and buy the gallbladders inexpensively and legally from him.
"If something they could buy in Idaho for $50 was worth (thousands of dollars) in the Orient, there would be people standing at my door. It's not happening, so that tells you it's all a bunch of bull."
Two states away, California wildlife enforcement officer Fred Coale didn't have a ready answer to that logic, but he speculated that poachers in his state aren't aware they can buy the organs legally in Idaho.
"Maybe when the word gets out, he'll be able to sell them," Coale said.
Schroeder could find a market today for his gallbladders in Asia, but the federal government won't give him a permit to export them overseas, he said.
Schroeder blames the federal government and the Asia recession for killing his sales, not Viagra.