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Woman staying in Los Angeles accused in bear bile importation

March 28, 2009|Victoria Kim

A South Korean woman staying in Los Angeles was charged by federal authorities Friday with illegally importing more than two pounds of bear bile, used for medicinal purposes and as an aphrodisiac in some Asian communities.

Seongja Hyun, 36, was arrested Thursday night by agents investigating a package of green crystallized bear bile from China. Because bears are protected under an international treaty and the Endangered Species Act, bear products can be imported only with government-issued export or import permits.

Hyun initially told authorities she planned on using the bile herself but eventually admitted she was selling the substance and had been advertising it, according to an affidavit by agent Mona Iannelli of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Bear bile, typically extracted from a living bear through a tube surgically inserted into the animal's gallbladder, is considered a treatment for conjunctivitis, jaundice and hemorrhoids, authorities said.

Customs officials intercepted the package from Liaoyang, China, on Monday at a San Francisco postal facility. The package contained four bags of the green crystalline substance, empty vials, and labels with Asian characters and a picture of a bear, Iannelli wrote.

The label said the product was from "He Rong Chang Bai Mountain Wildlife Animal Bear Cultivation Farm," according to the affidavit.

Authorities estimated that the bile could be sold for more than $400,000. Hyun told authorities that she had planned to sell the bile in the package for $3,000 or $4,000, according to the affidavit.

Agents obtained a warrant to search the Koreatown apartment where Hyun was staying and found additional bear bile, more than 100 empty vials, a measuring scale with dark- colored residue, and a diary written in Korean with dates and prices.

"We think this case is pretty significant given that she had almost a kilogram and she had all the packaging and measuring equipment," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Mark A. Williams of the Environmental Crime Section. "She could have distributed a large quantity to quite a few people."

Hyun told authorities she did not know it was illegal to import bear bile in the U.S. because it is common in China, according to the affidavit. She said she entered the U.S. last month and brought bear bile in her checked baggage. Illegal smuggling carries a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years.

Han Cho, who answered the phone at the Koreatown apartment, said Friday that Hyun received the bile from her sister, who lives in China. Cho, who said Hyun was staying with him temporarily, said Hyun had passed it out to friends at church, some of whom insisted on paying her.

"She doesn't know the U.S. very well," he said. "She didn't realize it would cause a problem."

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victoria.kim@latimes.com

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