Customs officials at Manzhouli, the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, discovered a haul of 213 wild bear paws that had been hidden in a vehicle by two Russian nationals, the biggest seizure of smuggled paws ever made by Chinese customs.
The suspects have been detained by customs police in the city, pending further investigations, including the destination of the paws, officials from the city's customs office told the Global Times on Monday.
Police said that the smugglers looked intense and suspicious during the regular check when entering the Chinese border on May 22, so they decided to send the vehicle for scanning. Customs officials then found the paws stuffed inside the van's wheels and spare tire.
The initial investigation found the paws may come from the brown bear, which is a nationally protected animal in China.
The smugglers were detained by police immediately.
"This case is quite special as it occurred in May, which is not a peak time for smuggling bear paws as the weather is too warm to keep the paws fresh," said Sun Rongxin, an official from Manzhouli customs. He added they had often seen similar attempts to smuggle paws, but in much smaller amounts and occurring during winter or early spring.
Police said that a kilogram of bear paw in Russia is worth 2,000 rubles ($63), while in China, the price could be 10 times higher. Sales of all bear parts are banned, according to China's animal protection regulations.
The customs police said that huge profit and the increasing demand in China triggered such smuggling cases.
"The demand is huge because more people can afford them and the country has the tradition to treat bear paw as a rare ingredient for cuisine or as an expensive present," Zhang Xiaohai, director of China's external affairs office for Animals Asia Foundation, told the Global Times.
Zhang said the number of such smuggling and other illegal trades are increasing in the past two years.
"Bear farms in China exacerbate the situation as they also sell paws illegally which stimulates the growing trade," he noted.