The woman in the market stall fills a glass with a reddish liquid, calling out what’s in the brew: white rum, seven types of tree bark, honey, pollen, a snake's head, the huanarpo macho plant, and the key ingredient—the penis bone of an Andean bear.
The drink, called Seven Roots, looks like a magic potion Gargamel would use to catch the Smurfs. But it’s real—one of numerous folkloric cures dispensed by traditional healers, or shamans, in Peru.
“If you have sexual impotence, you should scrape a part of the bear's penis bone and place it in the drink,” says the woman, whose shop, in the city of Chachapoyas, offers various shamanic cures. “However,” she adds, “if you want to possess this animal’s strength, you need to put in whole bones.”
The sour taste of the drink doesn’t differ much from that of any other cheap rum I've tried. The difference is what lies behind it: illegal trade in the body parts of the Andean bear, more commonly known as the spectacled bear. It is also the bear the cartoon character Paddington bear is based on.
I ask her how she sources Andean bear parts.
“We have them brought from the forest in Lamas,” she says, referring to an indigenous community in the San Martín region of northern Peru. “You have to shoot them straight in the heart. If you miss, it can attack you as it is a very strong animal.”
Does she worry that the bears might be hunted to extinction?
“It’s money!” she replies. “We win. Hunters also win. With that money, they buy rice, oil, and sugar.”
Andean bears (the only bear species in South America) are found in Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela, as well as Peru. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which sets the conservation status of species, lists them as “vulnerable.” Range-wide, their numbers have fallen to between 13,000 and 18,000, according to the IUCN’s most recent estimate, published in 2017. That’s a drop from an estimated total of 18,250 in 1996, when the IUCN noted that ‘’given the amount of area the bears occupy, there could be several times that amount.’’ In Peru, the bears are believed to number about 5,000.
Because of the Andean bear’s vulnerable status, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), the treaty that regulates cross-border wildlife trade, prohibits commercial trade of live bears or their body parts.
In Peru, protection for the bears dates to the adoption, in 1970, of a ministerial resolution that banned their hunting indefinitely. They’re also protected under a general law to combat wildlife trafficking. Similarly, hunting and selling Andean bears and their parts are banned under forestry and environmental laws in each of the other range countries.
But despite the protections, it’s clear, in Peru at least, that exploitation of Andean bears for shamanic uses is widespread. In travels to five regions of the country, I went undercover to document the illegal sale or use of Andean bear body parts. I witnessed uses of parts from more than 20 bears, and in markets in Lima, Chiclayo, Chachapoyas, Tarapoto, and Yurimaguas, I saw more than three gallons of “bear butter”—fat from Andean bears—for sale. Shamans prize the fat, saying it helps relieve muscle pain, fix broken bones, dislocations, spinal hernias, paralysis, and cure colds. I also saw five brands of a product called “bear rub.” This ointment claims to contain bear fat mixed with extracts of natural herbs, eucalyptus, camphor, and copaiba, among other compounds, and is touted as effective for sprains, rheumatism, arthritis, back pain, muscle pain, as well as colds.
Medicinal use of Andean bear fat dates back to the Incas. Belief in its efficacy persists in both the countryside and cities, although there’s no scientific evidence that it helps relieve any ailment.
According to Roxana Rojas-Vera Pinto, conservation officer with the Frankfurt Zoological Society, some Peruvians hunt the bears in retaliation for their killings of cattle or raids on corn crops. She says bears are known to have attacked cattle in 16 of the national protected areas where they’re found and to have damaged corn crops in nearly as many.
In addition to direct human threats to Andean bears, habitat loss and regional changes in climate, which are altering vegetation patterns and degrading ecosystems, are also putting pressure on the animals, according to the IUCN.
Andean bears help keep ecosystems in balance. They disperse seeds in their feces and act as pollinators by carrying pollen in their dense fur. And, Rojas says, securing bear habitat in the cloud and montane forests helps protect river basins that provide water for local communities downstream.
“I got everything”
Nearly 300 miles from Chachapoyas, in the northwestern city of Chiclayo, capital of the Lambayeque region, I meet a master shaman. Wearing shorts and slippers, his grey-blue eyes clouded by cataracts, he’s sitting at a counter in the back of his warehouse.
When I approach, he places a carved tooth about three inches long in my hand. Then he pours a mixture of alcohol and water from a small bottle over the tooth, asking me to smell it. It’s part of his ritual to protect against evil spirits, he says.
How do I know that this tooth is from an Andean bear? I ask.
“I'm legit!” he shoots back. “You’re talking to a serious man. My father and my mother were shamans. I am already 90 years old. I am internationally known. In my warehouse, I have four bear skins. Do you want to see them? Not any dumbass has them! I also have skins from pumas, jaguars. I got everything.”
Do you have more bear teeth?
“I'm going to show you other teeth that are not carved.”
Do you sell other bear body parts?’
“Ten days ago, I had five bear claws, but I already sold them. I trade every day here.”
The shaman shouts to his elderly assistant: “Hand me the white bag with holes!”
The bag contains about two dozen teeth, which the shaman says are from Andean bears. He sells them for $15 each, he explains, and keeps some for his own use in his protection rituals.
As we talk, he yells again to his assistant, asking him for “the other bag.” The shaman extracts six small curved bones shaped like a bow—the penile bones of Andean bears, he says, placing them in my right hand. (Peruvians call the bones vinzas.)
“These I have hidden,” he says. “We can’t exhibit them. If we do, people from forestry will come—I've already had problems with them.” By “forestry,” he means Peru’s Forestry and Wildlife Agency, which manages national forests and wildlife. And by “problems,” he means confiscations of his wildlife products.
Have you solved your problems, and if so, how?
“Arranging something directly with the official,” he replies.
Vinzas, he continues, are “very good as an aphrodisiac. I scrape them like flour and put them in a bottle of Seven Roots liquor. The bottle will cost you 500 soles.” (About $150). I am the most famous shaman in Lambayeque,” he says proudly. “People visit me from different parts of Peru.”
The miraculous cream
In a hallway of La Parada market, in Lima, a shaman rubs the arm of a woman with "bear butter"—the fat of an Andean bear. The woman was hoping for relief from a muscle pain in her arm.
“Give me your hand! Don’t be afraid! As you’re taking my butter, you should also take this snake skin to relieve your pain within three days,” he says. The shaman wraps the skin of a boa constrictor around her arm.
In Moshoqueque, a market in Chiclayo, a saleswoman shows me pure Andean bear fat in a half-liter plastic bottle.
I ask her how the fat is extracted and if she could get more if I wanted some.
‘’You take the fat out of the skin with a knife and put it in a pan,” she says. “Then you melt it and package it.” She adds, “In 15 days, the guy will bring me more.”
“The hunter brings us the whole bear, and we select the pieces we want to buy,” the saleswoman says. She shows me what she says is a dried bear penis, on sale for just over $750. She says she extracted it herself from the body of a bear that had been brought to her previously. “The vinza is very good to cure sexual impotence. But I only have this piece, I have sold the other part,’’ she says.
One of the bear rub products I saw was labeled under the name of Vergel S.A. But when I searched the open source database of the National Superintendency of Customs and Tax Administration (SUNAT), the agency responsible for collecting taxes and identifying contraband and tax evasion, I couldn’t find any record of a Vergel S.A.
An investigation for the period 2002 to 2007 by Judith Figueroa, a wildlife ecologist with Peru’s Association for the Research and Conservation of Biodiversity, revealed similar deceptions. “Of the 16 different presentations of bear rub observed, 81.2 percent had no registration record or was false according to the National Superintendency of Tax Administration.” According to Figueroa, “it is likely that SUNAT had no knowledge about the sale of the bear rub by these natural persons and companies.’’
Figueroa also noted that bear rub products carried labels with images of, variously, a polar bear, brown bear, American black bear, and panda. Vendors assured her, however, that the ointment was in fact made with fat from Andean bears. (The false labels were likely intended to distract authorities.)
Enforcing the law, reducing demand
Sam Shanee, director of Neotropical Primate Conservation, a charity established in the U.K. with regional branches in Peru and Colombia that has been fighting wildlife trafficking in South America, says the problem is most serious in Peru. Although fines are stiffer now, he says, “wildlife trafficking is more hidden—it’s out of sight but still exists.” (The fine for hunting, storing, collecting, and offering for sale any products and byproducts of wildlife have been increased from $180 to just over $1,500. Also, Peru’s penal code allows a prison sentence of up to five years for wildlife crimes.)
Before, when you went to a market, you saw animals or parts of animals for sale, Shanee says. Now, instead of openly displaying illicit goods, shop owners may, for example, display a pet parrot as a coded signal to customers. If you ask vendors, “they will bring you monkeys, birds, sloths, or anything you request. Almost on demand,’’ Shanee tells me.
He says authorities are hobbled by a lack of coordination. “The ecological police, regional environmental authorities, and prosecutors have to work together to carry out confiscation operations. So, it’s very difficult for everyone to act, and that’s a great weakness.”
Yuri Beraún, a wildlife management specialist at the Ministry of Environment, says “the institutions responsible for applying the law have operational and technical difficulties, as they don’t have the equipment to transport the animals they confiscate.” In addition, he says, turnover of enforcement staff is high.
To counteract what Shanee sees as enforcement deficiencies, in 2014 he established the Denuncia Fauna project. This initiative allows civilians, anonymously, to provide Neotropical Primate Conservation with wildlife trafficking tips, and the organization then alerts the relevant authorities.
But, Shanee says, of the 175 whistleblower complaints filed between 2014 and 2016, 74 percent yielded no enforcement action, and 26 percent resulted in the rescue of an animal. Only 3 percent led to investigations conducted by prosecutors, and of the total complaints, about 15 related to Andean bear parts. (Neotropical Primate Conservation has been involved in the rescue of seven live captive bears.) Of 619 wildlife crime cases in Peru since 2010, none have involved Andean bears, according to data provided by the justice ministry.
Henry Carhuatocto, president of the Institute for the Legal Defense of the Environment and Sustainable Development, a Peruvian nonprofit based in Lima, says it’s crucial to reduce demand for shamanistic cures. “To achieve a strategic litigation in environmental matters,” he explains, “they should sanction not only the one who kills the bear but those who are demanding the products. That way we will close the cycle."
But, he adds, Peru needs more environmental judges. “I think we have the glass half full. What we are missing are specialized judges in environmental matters. The only region that has an environmental court is Madre de Dios, so you are not able to take a person who commits a wildlife trafficking crime to jail in a different region."
Flor María Vega, the national coordinator of the Specialized Prosecutors’ Offices in Environmental Matters of Peru (also known by its Spanish acronym, FEMA), agrees. “We consider it important that judges and prosecutors acquire specialized knowledge about the management of wildlife to understand the importance of its conservation and unify criteria that guarantee environmental justice in cases of crimes related to wildlife trafficking.”
Vega also points out that FEMA doesn’t have the capacity to monitor markets where wildlife products are traded illegally in violation of CITES and to conduct searches and seizures as required by Peru’s CITES authorities.
"The number of specialized personnel for such work is insufficient, considering the procedural burden that each office handles,” Vega says. “So it could be assumed that the Peruvian government’s initiative to implement the CITES convention to stop illegal wildlife trafficking is not fully working."
What would help, Vega says, is for the Ministry of Environment to allocate funds to support inspections by FEMA. At present, she says, no money is earmarked for this.
The Ministry of Environment’s Beraún says Peru’s National Strategy to Reduce Illegal Wildlife Trafficking has led to significant advances in identifying the main trafficking routes for Andean bear products. The next step, he says, “is to carry out intelligence actions and punish not only the final consumer but the one who is doing the greatest damage: the middleman.”
The day after my visit to the Chachapoyas shamanic products shop, I looked in again. The woman’s father, a master shaman who she says is an expert in different types of magic, was cleaning the skin of an Andean bear on the floor with a brush.
For customers who come to the shop to buy Andean bear body parts or potions featuring bear parts, such a sight would be reassuring—it would show that products represented as from Andean bears are most likely genuine.
Eduardo Franco is an investigative photojournalist who covers wildlife crime and exploitation, among other environmental issues, in Latin America. He is the founder of www.raibolivia.org, a nature information site, and is based in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia. Follow Eduardo on Twitter and Instagram.
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.