State wildlife investigators want to know whether a legitimate hunter or a poacher dealing in illegal animal parts left a pair of severed black bear paws in front of a Riverside home recently.
The paws, which were in a plastic bag, appeared on the doorstep of a home on Clifton Boulevard on May 4. But who dropped them off is a mystery.
"The hunter was a friend of a friend of a friend who nobody seems to know," said Riverside police spokesman Steven Frasher. "We don't know if the paws were discarded or what. The homeowner threw them out, but then a neighbor called the police.
"There is speculation that this was a trophy, but leaving meat products on the doorstep in Southern California is not a good preservation strategy."
The paws were put into storage and the case was turned over to the California Department of Fish and Game. The Humane Society of the United States has offered a $2,500 reward for the arrest and conviction of whoever was responsible, if in fact they were poachers.
"Most hunters who legally take bears would not keep the paws or internal organs," said Michael Markarian, executive vice president of the Humane Society. "They may keep the head and hide, but they don't typically hold onto the other parts unless they are selling them."
Peddling bear parts is illegal in 34 states, including California, but they are highly coveted in Asian markets. Paws are made into bear paw soup, and the bile from gall bladders is considered an aphrodisiac. Claws are made into jewelry.
Paws can fetch hundreds, even thousands, of dollars. And a single gall bladder was selling for $2,800 in an Asian market in Los Angeles two years ago, Markarian said.
"The problem with bear poaching is that we really don't know how much is going on," said Kevin Brennan, a wildlife biologist for the Fish and Game Department. "Years ago we noticed a lot of guys poaching bears and selling parts in Asian markets. What happened in Riverside sounds strange. Someone went to the effort of saving the bag, so they knew the paws had intrinsic value."
Harry Morse, a Fish and Game spokesman, said the state's bear population is booming and has increased from 10,000 to 30,000 in the last 25 years.
Food is more widely available because more people live in bear habitat. And black bears, the state's only bears now, occupy places where grizzlies roamed before being wiped out in the state, he said. At the same time, a hunter can still bag only one bear per season. Hunters can keep all the parts but can't sell them.
According to the Humane Society, Redding police arrested a San Diego man last year for illegally selling bear gall bladders for medicinal purposes. Game wardens regularly find dead black bears with gall bladders and paws removed, Markarian said.
"Globally, the international trade in wildlife parts is the most lucrative, after illegal drugs and firearms," he said.