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Biggest Bust in a Decade of Tiger, Bear Parts in Russia

WASHINGTON - Russian law enforcement officials today seized three Siberian tiger skins, eight tiger paws and 332 tiger bones as well as 531 saiga horns and 283 Asiatic black bear paws near the Russian border with China, making it the the largest bust of its kind in at least a decade. The seizure took place in a village near Russia's eastern border with China in an area where World Wildlife Fund (WWF) works with government authorities to combat the illegal trade of wildlife products when police stopped a car that had its passenger seats removed and was stuffed full of bags. The driver claimed to be delivering bags of potatoes but upon inspection police discovered the animal parts.

Poaching for illegal wildlife trade for use in traditional medicines, as trophies and in fashion is a significant threat to many species in this region. Dozens of Siberian tigers are killed by poachers annually in Primorye and Khabarovsk regions of Russia and their skins and body parts are smuggled to China. Saiga antelope horns are often smuggled to Russia through Kazakhstan and on to China. Asiatic black bear and brown bear are usually killed for their gall bladders and furs. The paws are eaten in soup.

"Endangered species do not belong on your mantle or in your soup," said Crawford Allan, Director of TRAFFIC North America, the wildlife monitoring arm of WWF and the IUCN - The World Conservation Union. "To secure the future of these animals in the wild, TRAFFIC and its partners are working to build capacity and boost cooperation among Russian, Chinese and Mongolian authorities to improve cross-border coordination and strict enforcement of wildlife laws."

All species represented in the seizure are protected by Russian and international law. The global CITES treaty (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) prohibits all commercial international trade in the Siberian tiger and the Asiatic black bear, for example. Russian law prohibits the taking, purchase, sale, transportation, or export of these protected species.

WWF regards the Russian Far East as a critical conservation priority for endangered Siberian tigers and Amur leopards and has focused on reducing poaching, curbing illegal logging in tiger habitat, and protecting key species in the region since the early nineties. WWF has established anti-poaching ranger brigades, helped create new protected areas, and trained and educated government officials on the illegal trade of wildlife products.

"We haven't seen a wildlife bust out in the countryside like this in a decade," said Dr. Darron Collins, managing director, Amur-Heilong program, World Wildlife Fund. "It's horrible that such a slaughter took place and the demand for these products is still there, but the criminals were caught and that alone demonstrates Russia's commitment to quelling the problem. The big question now is how will these guys be prosecuted?"