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Operation Thunderball identifies possible trafficking of Canadian bear pieces
The INTERPOL-led Operation Thunderball involved wildlife enforcement efforts throughout June, leading to the seizure of thousands of plants and animals — everything from elephant ivory to live primates, to Canadian black bear parts discovered at a New Brunswick border.
Sheldon Jordan, director general of the wildlife enforcement directorate with Environment and Climate Change Canada, was part of the organizing committee for the operation, tracking Canada’s contribution to the anti-smuggling, poaching and trafficking effort, paired with protection.
“We looked at the export of Canadian species, we looked at the import of foreign species into Canada, and we looked at the protection of Canadian species with a special focus on species at risk,” he told The Telegram this week.
Black bears can be legally hunted in Canadian provinces, in regulated and licensed hunts, including in Newfoundland and Labrador, where two bears can be killed per licence. Provincial wildlife enforcement generally deal with in-province issues, while federal responsibility follows interprovincial and international movements of plants and animals, or plant and animal products.
From an international viewpoint, Jordan said, black bears are coveted.
“Canada is actually the last country in the world that has a population that is healthy of black bears. Most places of the world, they’ve been wiped out through habitat loss, or because of demand for their meat or their organs for traditional medicine,” he said.
Jordan said he’s seen signs of an increase in demand within Canada in the last number of years for bear organs, particularly gall bladders, in what he called the traditional medicine market.
There’s also demand from outside the country, leading to “blitzes” — the checks at the Canada-U.S. border that were part of Operation Thunderball.
“Once they’re in Asia, a bear gall bladder can go for thousands of dollars, whereas in most provinces in Canada it’s illegal to even possess a gall bladder. It has to be left in the gut pile,” Jordan said.
“What we found wasn’t bear gall bladders. What we found was a bunch of bear baculums. And a bear baculum is the penis bone that comes out of the bear. We found 16 of them in three different provinces (including New Brunswick) during export checks, which is something that really surprised us. The penis bone and testicles — we also found a number of bear testicles — are sought after. … We also found a number of bear paws that were being smuggled out of the country. Those are usually used in a soup. So it’s more of a delicacy.”
Throughout Canada, there were many seizures during the month believed to be linked to traditional medicines, including of endangered wild orchids, diet pills made from endangered African cacti, and Canada’s first seizure of pangolins (commonly described as scaly anteaters, and believed to be the world’s most trafficked mammal).
The World Customs Organization worked with INTERPOL, in addition to national enforcement, and Operation Thunderball was the third such effort in as many years, preceded by Thunderstorm (2018) and Thunderbird (2017). Beyond border blitzes, the Canadian efforts include on-site activities throughout the country, from markets to nesting areas. There were checks, for example, of known and potential nesting areas for migratory birds, including the piping plover and bank swallow.
“The bank swallow is a small, migratory bird and the populations have plummeted by 98 per cent in the last 40 years. So they are terribly vulnerable,” Jordan said.
The birds sometimes dig in and nest at construction sites, quarries and gravel pits. And at times, the nests have been illegally disturbed and destroyed. Some locations are identified based on tips from the public (independent of the ongoing enforcement operation, more than 100 tips were recorded by federal enforcement during the month).
While the operation was a flurry of activity, enforcement and protection efforts don't stop. Within the last week, Jordan said, wildlife officers based in Corner Brook were dispatched to Labrador to check for bank swallow sites and ensure that operators understood their legal obligations.