Wrapped in foil and tucked in a carry-on bag, the bear paws were on their way to Asia, part of a shadowy, international trade in animal parts that flourishes even as governments step up efforts to contain it.
Instead, the paws – three of them, from two different black bears – were spotted early Sunday by security staff at Vancouver International Airport, where a 39-year-old man was detained as he attempted to board a flight to China.
The man, a Vancouver resident, was arrested and released on a promise to appear in provincial court in Richmond on Oct. 6, said Sergeant Dave Jevons of B.C.'s Conservation Officer Service, which is now in charge of the investigation.
B.C. prosecutors have yet to approve charges, but investigators are expected to recommend stiff fines and possible jail time.
"We will be seeking from Crown a recommendation for a very stiff penalty," Sgt. Jevons said Monday. "We want people to know that if you do try this and you get caught, it's not going to be just a slap on the wrist. You will be significantly fined – if you are a hunter, we will seek to have your hunting privileges suspended … that's where we look for the deterrence effect."
Provincial legislation provides for a fine of up to $250,000 and up to six months in prison for a first offence, Sgt. Jevons said.
The trade in illegal animal parts includes bear paws, sometimes used in soups, and bear gall bladders, which are used in traditional medicines.
B.C. conservation officers regularly deal with incidents involving smuggled bear parts, Sgt. Jevons said, although he was not able to say how many such incidents have occurred over the past few years.
"We know it's an ongoing problem," he said. "Like any illicit trade, it is very difficult to quantify – because what we see is only a portion of the illegal activity."
Both individuals and organized groups are involved in the trade, he added.
It is legal to hunt both black and grizzly bears in B.C., but it is illegal to sell any bear parts.
The man could face charges under B.C.'s Wildlife Act as well as federal legislation used to enforce Canada's obligations under CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
In 2009, a B.C. company was fined $45,000 for illegally possessing medicine that contained tiger parts.
An Environment Canada investigation found the company possessed medicine and products made from some of the rarest species on the planet.
Editor's note: The spokesman for B.C.'s Conservation Officer Service is Sergeant Dave Jevons. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this story. This version has been corrected.