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Bears in the United States could meet the same fate as the almost-extinct black rhinoceros in Africa if poaching and selling of animal parts goes unchecked, said a Utah Division of Wildlife Resources official.

That is why Utah has been involved with three other states in a sting operation specifically aimed at stopping the sale of bear gall bladders, said Robert Elswood, law enforcement coordinator for the division."It's a concerted criminal effort that threatens the wildlife of the world," Elswood said. "If we don't do something now, future generations will hold us remiss."

Wildlife officials set up a storefront business, Utah Nature Enterprises, to lure people they had already determined were involved in selling and trading the animal parts.

Five people in California and Colorado were arrested last week, and Elswood anticipates that by the end of the investigation as many as 30 people will be charged with killing animals for commercial gain, a felony in most Western states. Tiger male sex organs, hawk and eagle talons, deer antlers, bear paws and sex organs from seals were other body parts seized by wildlife officials.

Big money and the belief that animal parts can give people power is why the animals are killed, Elswood said.

"In Asia there's a concept or notion that comes from their mythology that animals have strength, stamina and other qualities. If you eat certain parts of the animals those traits will be transferred," he said. "Some people are firmly convinced animal parts are essential for their existence."

Dried bear gall bladders net as much as $260 a gram in Korea, and a gall bladder itself may weigh 2,700 grams. Poaching has threatened Asian bears with extinction, Elswood said, so the people involved have turned to North America as another source of profit.

"It's a problem of tremendous demand in another part of the world that's influencing poaching here," he said. He noted, however, that people involved in the criminal activity are not exclusively Asian.

Elswood believes one of the men arrested for trading animal parts, Joseph Chang of Rosemead, Calif., originally from Taiwan, is a ringleader. Investigators found more than 180 gall bladders in his possession when he was arrested.

Chang also bragged to undercover investigators that he had purchased as many as 500 gall bladders at one time in the past, Elswood said.