ON THE BLUE RIDGE, Va. -- In these old mountains live muscled creatures that can outrun and outclimb the most agile of men, that weigh hundreds of pounds but travel the woods with graceful stealth.
They have survived dog packs and traffic and the loss of their forest lairs to subdivisions. Thrived, even: About 4,000 American black bears roam Virginia's Blue Ridge, Great Dismal Swamp and western Alleghenies, and state game officials say that number is on the rise.
But the animals face a gruesome and growing threat. A brisk underground trade in their organs and paws has made their carcasses worth thousands of dollars -- and their gallbladders more valuable, gram for gram, than gold.
Coveted for their medicinal properties, the gallbladders of Virginia bears are winding up in Asian apothecaries in Baltimore, Washington and overseas, and their paws are appetizers in some big-city Asian restaurants.
The premium placed on bear parts has turned law-abiding hunters into villains. It has led some to carve the paws and gallbladders from their kills, and leave the rest to rot on the forest floor. It has pumped cash into a network of poachers, middlemen and large-scale distributors. It has killed a lot of bears.
State and federal officials have responded with an ambitious sting operation. Over three winters, park rangers and game wardens posed as hunters with bear innards to sell and as dealers eager to buy the organs. They amassed 300 gallbladders.
This summer federal officials expect to prosecute 13 people, most from the Blue Ridge, for allegedly participating in the trade. Others will stand trial on charges that they traded in wildlife parts for use in jewelry.
Virginia's black bears have been hunted since long before the English settled at Jamestown: They provided the state's Indian tribes with rugs and clothing, with meat, with tooth and claw trinkets. But the Indians overlooked what has become the bear's most valuable component.
Its pear-shaped gallbladder produces an acid prized among practitioners of traditional Asian medicine, who credit it with a host of curative properties. Dried and ground into a powder, bear galls are ingredients in folk treatments for heart, liver and intestinal diseases, in painkillers and cough medicines, and in general tonics. A synthetic version of the bile's active ingredient is used by Western hospitals to treat kidney stones and liver ailments.
But though such man-made bile substitutes are readily available in Asian communities throughout the world, traditional medicine users covet the real thing. The demand for bear gall has decimated the Asian black bear population, and the market has moved abroad. Polar bear gallbladders have been traded in Alaska, grizzly galls in Canada and the United States. The trade's emerging favorite, however, is the American black bear.
"Our people feel it's a matter of time before the pressure drastically increases on the bear population here," says Ted Wagner, a pseudonym for an undercover agent for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
Last year, 914 bears -- nearly one in four of the state's estimated total -- were legally "harvested." Many more were shot by poachers -- people who illegally used bait to draw bears into ambushes, killed out of season or where hunting is out of bounds, or who exceeded the state's one-bear bag limit.
Both hunters and poachers supply the bear-parts trade. The prices paid for the parts -- $50 to $200 per gallbladder -- are a strong temptation to a hunter with a legal kill, who otherwise might throw the parts away, or to a woodsman with the opportunity to poach. They sell them to regional dealers with out-of-town contacts who will pay $200 to $400 for a gallbladder. By the time the organ reaches an urban consumer, its price can run into the thousands of dollars.
Bear-paw soup sells for $60 to $100 per bowl as a delicacy in some Washington restaurants, officials said, and can fetch upward of $1,000 a bowl in some Asian cities.
Whether it's a "sportsman" or a poacher who puts the gall in the dealer's hand, the transaction is illegal. Virginia law says a hunter can't sell any part of a bear, and the federal Lacey Act makes trading in illegally obtained animal parts a crime with serious consequences -- up to five years in prison and $250,000 fines for each violation.
But the risk is usually low, says Clayton Jordan, ranger for Shenandoah National Park's Central District: "Any time you're dealing with a large land base and just a few people to protect that large base, you're looking for a needle in a haystack."
Still, the sting operation was the beneficiary of local cooperation. "What was really unique about this operation," says Col. Jeffrey A. Uerz, chief of law enforcement for Game and Inland Fisheries, "was that some of the people who were standing next to these poachers were the ones calling us and saying, `This is not right.' "