JUNEAU (AP) -- When Viagra first became available in the United States to treat impotency, there was speculation it would dry up the illegal market for bear gallbladders.
Two years later, however, opinions are mixed on whether the little blue pills are doing just that.
Alaska Board of Game member Mike Fleagle said people testifying before a board committee told wildlife officials that Viagra, which became available in 1998, was reducing demand for bear gallbladders.
The fluid in the bear organs is thought in some Asian cultures to enhance sexual performance. Dealers in the Far East reportedly pay up to $20,000 for one bear gallbladder.
People in Alaska and most other states are prohibited from selling bear gallbladders or most other bear parts. It's a felony in California, but gallbladder sales there are a big business on the black market, according to wildlife officials. Enforcement officers estimate poachers take roughly 1,500 black bears a year.
''The money is in the gallbladder,'' said Fred Coale, deputy chief of California's wildlife enforcement branch. ''Sometimes we find the bears dead -- shot and just the gallbladder taken.''
Coale said California enforcement officers 18 months ago raided one of the largest Asian apothecary shops on the West Coast and seized a dozen bear gallbladders. He said the poachers sell the organs for $200 to $400 each to merchants, who illegally sell them to customers for $2,000 dried and the gallbladders fetch 10 times that amount in Asia.
He said one suspect offered evidence of illegal sales, including a receipt for a bear gallbladder the suspect had sold in Korea for $20,000.
Even if Viagra is putting a dent in the demand for gallbladders, the illegal killing would continue because other parts of the bears are valuable, Coale said.
''They also use the paws for paw soup, or eye teeth for ornamental jewelry,'' he said.
Viagra has not killed demand for the organs because some in the Asian community also use them to treat ailments other than sexual dysfunction, said Franco D'Angelo, an enforcement officer with the Alaska Fish and Wildlife Protection Division.
Last year D'Angelo led an undercover sting operation near Talkeetna where a game guide insisted on keeping the gallbladder from a brown bear that was killed illegally. A search of the guide's home turned up 12 bear gallbladders, which he had planned to sell on the black market to Korean buyers.
Dr. Ida Chin, a trained specialist in Oriental herbs, said bear organs are used to treat other medical problems.
''Some cancer patients use it to boost their energy. Some people use it to detoxify their body,'' said Chin, an immigrant from China practicing acupuncture in Anchorage.
Gary Schroeder of Idaho, where the sale of bear gallbladders is legal, said the business in gallbladders dried up in the late 1990s during an economic crisis in Asia.
''We had a lot of Korean and Chinese students here, but when the economy went bad in the Far East a lot of the students went back home or got tight with their money,'' Schroeder said.
Schroeder owns Moscow Hide and Fur, an animal-parts store. He sells an average-size gallbladder of 3 ounces for $50, but can't find buyers.
He said if the organs were worth what some people say, poachers would stop their illegal killing and buy gallbladders from him.
''If something they could buy in Idaho for $50 was worth (thousands of dollars) in the Orient, there would be people standing at my door,'' he said.
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