Saskatoon bear parts trafficking trial shows evidence of global reach, say conservation officers

According to evidence unearthed by undercover Conservation officers, illegal Saskatchewan bear parts may have been sent as far as China.

On Wednesday, Lianhua Chi, 55, stood trial in Saskatoon provincial court, charged with seven counts of trafficking animals. Chi pleaded not guilty, her lawyer saying that the year-long undercover investigation was an abuse of process and entrapment.

Chi was arrested after a lengthy investigation, where conservation officers posed as bear outfitters from northern Saskatchewan, and sold bear parts they claimed were illegally hunted.

Chi was never accused of illegally hunting the bears herself, but only being a buyer for illegal bear parts. 

During the trial, the officers testified Chi told them she and her sister had smuggled dried black bear gallbladders to Toronto and to relatives in China.

Bear gallbladders (as well as bear paws) are highly prized by practitioners of Chinese medicine and are used for everything from liver disease to epilepsy. However, hunting bears to harvest the organs is illegal, driving up the price.

One of the officers (whose identity is protected under a publication ban) testified going undercover was vital to the investigation.

“Generally, when you have a trafficking case, you need to have a willing buyer and a willing seller,” he said. “It’s hard to intercept.”

Officers suspicious

The investigation got its start with a dead bear at the landfill in the northern Saskatchewan community of Sandy Bay.

In May 2016, the bear was found gutted, with its hide intact. That was unusual, because most hunters take the bear’s pelt as a trophy.

According to testimony at the trial, police in the area were told the bear was illegally shot and its gall bladder had been sold to the managers of Chung’s Restaurant in Sandy Bay.

Conservation officers decided to investigate, and sent two officers posing as bear hunters to the restaurant.

After several trips, they asked the owners if they could take some of the restaurant’s used fryer grease for bear bait, a common mixture that lures bears to an area so they’re easier to hunt.

Then, according to one of the officers, he was approached by manager Li Gen Han and asked if they would be interested in selling them the gallbladder of any bears they hunted.

The officers went and began raiding their stores of frozen black bears, taken from “problem” bears that were threatening to humans and killed.

Over the next two-and-a-half years, the officers visited Li, and his wife Li Luanshuan 17 times.

The volume of the orders, which included 16 gallbladders and 15 paws made officers suspicious.

“With that quantity, it draws suspicions that it’s not just for personal use,” said one of the officers at the trial.

The officers asked if they knew anyone else interested in buying bear parts.

Li said he would ask his aunty — Lianhua Chi.

Investigation expanding

In November 2016, officers testified they met with Chi at her restaurant in Saskatoon, Jeju Korean BBQ and asked her for used cooking oil to use in bear baiting.

They testified that Chi asked them for ‘bear chest.’ When they asked if she meant bear gallbladders, the officers testified she said yes.

The officers left and returned a few days later, stating they asked Chi if she knew that selling bear parts was illegal, and that they could all get into big trouble if they were caught.

The officers said Chi agreed to the price of $300 per gallbladder. She told the officers that she often gave the gallbladders to friends, who would then offer her $300 per item.

They say she also agreed to buy bear paws for $20, and bear ‘arms’ (the bear leg with the shoulder attached) for $25.

Over the next six months, the two officers became regular fixtures at the restaurant, selling numerous bear parts to Chi and others at the restaurant.

While they were told about several buyers in the community that used Chi as a source for bear parts, they were never identified, even when the officers said they would stop selling to her if she didn’t identify them.

The two officers became friendly with Chi and her sister, who cooked at the restaurant. She allegedly told the officers she would dry bear gallbladders and grind them up, wrap them up in clothing and ship them through the mail to people in Toronto.

The officers also said Chi told them about how she would hid dried bear gallbladder in containers, then wrap them in clothing and hide them in her luggage as she travelled to China.

Abuse of process

During cross-examination, Chi’s lawyer hammered the officers on how many times she had contacted the officers to buy bear parts, and whether the lengthy nature of the investigation was warranted.

He also asked officers if they had any proof Chi had sold the bear parts to others in the community.

Li Gen Han and Li Luanshuan from Sandy Bay pleaded guilty to numerous counts of trafficking in animal parts and were fined $30,000.

The trial was adjourned and will resume Dec. 2.