Gordon Hitchcock and his fellow officers in British Columbia are struggling to solve a triple slaying that points to a massive underground organ smuggling trade spurred by demand in Asia.
The bodies of the victims - all three of them black bears - were found dumped last month at remote roadsides near the town of Nanaimo on the southeastern coast of Vancouver Island.
Their mutilated carcasses were discovered within days of one another, with their paws hacked off and their gall bladders and hearts removed.
"That one puzzled us a bit," said Mr Hitchcock, operations manager of the provincial Conservation Officer Service. "We don't normally see hearts removed."
But otherwise, the case is remarkably similar to the numerous other black bear killings that Mr Hitchcock has encountered during his 17 years with the environmental conservation office.
Bear paws and gall bladders are highly prized in the international trade of animal parts as they are believed to possess healing properties in traditional Chinese medicine.
Over the years, the lucrative underground trade has encouraged poachers to kill an untold number of wild Canadian black bears, each weighing 90kg to 200kg, for a few grams of their valued parts.
Gall bladders, which are used to treat a variety of illnesses from fevers to ulcers, are particularly sought after. These sell for thousands of US dollars each on the black market in Asia, where they can be worth more than their weight in gold.
During the 1990s, bear paw soup, considered a delicacy in many areas of Asia, was reported to cost as much as US$1,000 a bowl.
Concerned that the province's wild bears were threatened by poaching, the government of British Columbia imposed a ban in 1993 that targeted the commercial trade and possession of bear gall bladders, gall bladder derivatives - or bile products - and bear paws separate from the carcass.
(The distinction that parts be separate from the carcass is critical as bear hunting is legal in the province, provided it is done during the designated hunting season and with a valid permit.)
Those violating the ban face up to C$100,000 (HK$739,000) in fines and up to one year in prison.
For a while, the illegal killings seemed to level off, but Mr Hitchcock said the poaching in British Columbia appeared to be on the rise again.
Several recent convictions, including a couple in Vancouver who were fined C$6,000 last September for possessing a bear gall bladder, have done little to deter the trade. And the authorities have no suspects in the latest slaughter.
Although Mr Hitchcock was not able to immediately provide the number of cases now under investigation, he noted the caseload was at a high.
"We have noticed a spike in increased unlawful activity in the past two to three years," he said.
He said he could not speculate on what was fuelling the surge, but wildlife activists believed growing demand and increased wealth in Asia were to blame.
Since the 1980s, demand in Asia has been so great that suppliers in China, South Korea and Vietnam have set up bear farms, where they keep the animals in small cages and use tubes or syringes to extract bile from their gall bladders daily, according to an international charity group, World Society for the Protection of Animals.
Such farms were legal in China, and the bile products they generated could be sold legally within the country, the society said in a March report.
Yet paradoxically, instead of quelling demand for wild bear parts from
Canada, bear farming has contributed to the problem, said Michelle Cliffe of the society's Canadian branch.
"What's happening is the bear farming industry is creating a demand for bear bile products," Ms Cliffe said, noting that suppliers marketed their products aggressively to the public.
Not only is the general demand rising, many consumers believe wild bear parts are more potent and, thus, more valuable than bile from farmed bears, she said.
The society's investigators were told regularly by traders that wild gall
bladder products would cost much more than farmed bile, the report stated.
In a survey last year, the society found that bear products were traded
illegally throughout the globe, including in the US, Canada, Japan,
Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan, contrary to domestic laws and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
Canadian black bears are not endangered, but many other species whose parts are traded are, such as the Asiatic black bear and Malaysian sun bear.
Products from these bears, found in Asian herbal medicine shops, ranged from whole gall bladders to bile crystals, pills, ointments and liquids, the survey said.
While an average bear gall bladder cost US$235 in Canada, the same product was sold at as much as US$3,486 in South Korea.
In Japan, the average price of bear bile was US$48 per gram - more than twice the market price of gold.
To crack down on the sale of bear products in Canada, the society has developed test kits, which are being tried out in the field by federal wildlife investigators to detect bear protein quickly in various products.
"Until now, [federal officials] haven't had any ability to find out without
sending it to a lab," Ms Cliffe said.
She said the Canadian authorities expected to conclude their six-month trial of the test kits in November.
Meanwhile, some practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine are doing their best to stem the demand.
Dr Pan Xiaochuan, principal of the Canadian College of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine in Victoria, British Columbia, said his students were taught to use synthetic bear bile, made from chemicals or alternatives such as cow bile.
Traditionally, he said, the bear gall bladder and bear bile were used to
treat ailments associated with the eastern concept of "heat".
Fevers, ulcers and even acne are all categorised as heat-related disorders, which can be remedied with ursodeoxycholic acid, the active ingredient in bear gall bladder and bile.
Dr Pan said he had never used real bear products, even when he practised medicine for 20 years in China.
Authentic bear parts were far from necessary, he said, and even synthetic bile products, which cost as little as 50 Canadian cents for a small vial, were rarely prescribed.
"We have so many other herbs that have the same function," he said. "So it's not necessary to use them."