A South Korean woman was charged Friday with violating federal animal protection laws by importing bear bile, harvested in China and worth tens of thousands of dollars, for sale in the Los Angeles area.
Seongja Hyun was arrested late Thursday after U.S. Customs agents intercepted a package containing four bags of a dark, crystalline substance believed to be bear bile, the U.S. Attorney's Office reported.
Bear bile, which is extracted from living bears kept in captivity on farms, often in Korea, China and Vietnam, is used in traditional Chinese medicine as an aphrodisiac and a treatment for an array of ailments.
Hyun allegedly admitted she was selling bear bile to others in the Korean community in Los Angeles.
The substance is usually taken in capsule form, and sells for about $40,000 per kilogram in the U.S., experts said. However, Hyun allegedly told investigators she was planning to sell all the bile in her possession -- nearly a kilo -- for no more than $4,000.
Extraction of the bile involves inserting a tube into the bear's gallbladder, and eventually causes the death of the animal from associated causes, according to court papers.
The investigation into Hyun began last Monday, when the package labeled "food items" was seized at a postal facility in San Francisco.
Along with the apparent bile, authorities uncovered empty vials and labels for bear bile, according to an affidavit in support of the criminal complaint.
The package was then sent under controlled delivery to Hyun at an address in Koreatown, where she later said she was living with her fiance, the court document states.
On Thursday, Postal and Customs agents observed Hyun take delivery of the package, executed a search warrant of the South Berendo Street unit and interviewed the woman through a Korean translator, according to the affidavit.
During the search, agents allegedly found additional bear bile, vials and packaging, and placed Hyun under arrest.
Hyun was scheduled to make her initial federal court appearance Friday for the purpose of appointing an attorney. The date of her next court appearance was not immediately available.
If convicted of illegal importation of wildlife, Hyun faces a maximum statutory sentence of 20 years in federal prison, said U.S. Attorney Thomas P. O'Brien.
Bears are protected under an international treaty signed by more than 150 countries to provide protection to endangered fish, wildlife and plants.
In the U.S., the treaty is implemented by the Endangered Species Act, which only allows the importation of bear products if the country of origin has issued a foreign export permit and the U.S. has granted an import permit, O'Brien said.