She was a beautiful black bear, pregnant with two cubs. Wildlife researchers watching her took off for a three-week Christmas break, leaving her safely tucked in her den 12 feet up in a tree. When they returned, the only thing left in the tree was a skull and the hide. The poachers had tracked her down by tracing the radio transmitter planted by researchers. The bear might have been used for personal consumption, or traded for cash on its way to Asian markets here or abroad.
The gall bladder alone could bring $150 to $300, and the total body parts are worth $700 to $1,000. The price triples if the merchandise is shipped to Korea.
``It was like shooting a baby in a crib,'' says Richen M. Brame, director of administration for the North Carolina Wildlife Federation. ``She had no chance. She was denning - woozy as if she was under anesthesia.''
What bothers the University of North Carolina researchers the most is that the bear was the only pregnant female in the refuge.
The gruesome world of killing wildlife for profit is a phenomenon that has grown rapidly over the last five years or so. This burgeoning business has put a price on wildlife, both whole animals and their body parts. Even fish and plants are included in this illegal trade.
Who is illegally buying wildlife?
According to law enforcement experts, some goes to collectors, some (especially venison) to restaurants, and some to individuals for personal consumption. Mr. Brame knows of one poaching ring in Rocky Mount, N.C., that allegedly sells deer for $30 to $40 apiece to low-income families in rural areas. ``At 100 pounds per deer, it is an inexpensive source of meat,'' Brame explains.
Even more alarming, according to experts, is the increasing proportion of illegal wildlife products purchased in America's growing Asian communities. There is now sufficient demand for these products as medicinal aids and as aphrodisiacs to create a lucrative market.
``We are just touching the surface of the practice of using wildlife parts for Oriental medicine,'' says Jerome S. Smith, deputy chief in the Division of Law Enforcement for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. ``And we see similar examples in virtually all animals. ... We have got to do something to break through the cultural barriers and attack their beliefs in these products.''
The rapid rise in illegal wildlife trade has forced the Fish and Wildlife Service to go undercover.
Virtually all of its undercover efforts are now directed toward infiltrating commercial operations. Five years ago, only half of its resources were aimed at commercial wildlife trade. ``It's our No. 1 priority,'' says Mr. Smith.
``You don't find [poachers] in blaze orange with a turkey feather in their cap,'' he says. ``They are not sportsmen. ...[These] people are looking at wildlife with dollar signs. We're talking big bucks.''
In the case of the pregnant black bear, the poachers illegally adjusted the radio equipment normally used to keep track of their hunting dogs until they found the protected bear's frequency.
From that point on it was a simple matter of tracing the signal to the bear's den. There are new reports that the same method was used on another denning black bear in the area just last week.
``The people I've talked to don't want to come forward because they are scared,'' says North Carolina Game Warden Roger D. Gibby. He has a tough job.
Game wardens have the highest assault rate of any field of law enforcement. In North Carolina, there are only two wardens per county, on average, to deal with lawbreakers.
``These bear hunters are tough people,'' Mr. Gibby says.
Col. Gerald Simmons is the chief of law enforcement for the Virginia Commission of Game and Inland Fisheries. ``These people are slobs really, they are not real hunters,'' he says.
Earlier this month some of his undercover officers, working with federal agents, arrested 11 people allegedly involved in an illegal deer hunting ring suspected of bagging 300 to 500 deer a year.
``We are talking about a bunch of guys who would do whatever it took to make a few dollars,'' Colonel Simmons says. He also attributes much of Virginia's growing problem to increasing demand from the Asian community.
Not all poaching is for commercial markets.
Many parts of the country are experiencing growing numbers of illegal road hunters, people who cruise rural roads at night looking for deer. Using a powerful spotlight, they search for a pair of eyes, hop out of their vehicle, and open fire. Landowners are frightened, property gets damaged, and domestic cattle and pets have been killed.
In one ``sting'' operation run in northwestern Virginia, virtually every car that passed a stuffed deer on a rural road stopped and opened fire. Only the local residents drove past without firing a shot.
According to Dennis C. Eggers, assistant director for hunter services at the National Rifle Association (NRA), there are three types of offenders:
Those ignorant of the law, who go out hunting without reviewing the laws.
Opportunists, who normally obey the law but will take what they think is a unique opportunity to kill wildlife.
Flagrant violators, who leave their homes with the intent to break the law.
Hunting organizations like the NRA have taken strong positions against poachers and road hunters.
``Nobody wants to clean up hunting more than hunters,'' says Mr. Eggers. ``The impact of the flagrant violators is the worst. They take the greatest toll on the resource.''
The NRA stresses hunting ethics in its Basic Hunter's Guide, which is used in hunting education classes all over the country.
All states offer hunting education programs for those applying for hunting licenses; in 36 states the program is mandatory.
But not everyone is convinced these courses are making much of a difference. ``I wish I could say education is working,'' says Mr. Brame of the North Carolina Wildlife Federation. ``[Hunting] is ingrained in these people. It's a big moment when your daddy takes you out to spotlight your first deer. I don't think education is going to change that attitude in the home.''
Suggestions for curtailing poaching include more education, stiffer penalties, and wider use of ``case laws,'' which require long-barreled guns kept in vehicles to be unloaded and stored in their cases. Many wildlife officials complain of small penalties from judges overwhelmed with drug and urban crime cases.
``If the judges would burn these people harder it would help,'' says game warden Gibby.
Mr. Brame would like to see more citizen involvement in reporting violators. NRA's Eggers points out that 43 states now have violation reporting systems, often with a toll-free number. The public response has been favorable.
Everyone familiar with the problem agrees that vigorous law enforcement is critical. But tight federal and state budgets restrict significant expansion efforts in many jurisdictions.
The Izaak Walton League of America, a national environmental organization, supports hunting but is concerned over the decline in hunting ethics and outdoor behavior.
In November, the league will sponsor an international conference on outdoor ethics to recommend ways to improve the ethical behavior of outdoor enthusiasts.
According to the group's executive director, Jack Lorenz, ``The need for a new outdoor ethic is vital if we are to pass on to future generations the superb outdoor experience we know and enjoy today.''