TRADERS caught selling illegal bear gall-bladders and bile are to face stiffer sentences, representatives from the Agriculture and Fisheries Department revealed at the world's first symposium on the medicinal trade of bear products. At present, those caught with unlicensed bear parts face a maximum fine of $25,000 for a first offence, and up to $50,000 and six months' imprisonment for a repeat offence. The sentences will be more than trebled by the end of the year as the department seeks to stamp out the illicit trade, a spokesman for the department confirmed. The symposium, being held in Seattle in the United States, falls under the jurisdiction of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Traditionally in Hong Kong, bears' gall-bladders and bile have been used as remedies for liver problems, heart trouble, colds and even as an ointment for haemorrhoids. In a clampdown on the illegal sales, the department has inspected 1,756 shops, representing 80 per cent of Chinese medicinal shops in Hong Kong, so far this year. Thirty-eight items believed to be illegal bear gall-bladders were recovered during the inspections, along with 0.25 kilograms of bear gall-bladder powder. Arrangements for prosecutions are under way. As bear gall-bladder and bile are not readily recognisable through physical inspection, chemical tests have to be carried out to prove authenticity. The items can be sold for medicinal purposes, but only if traders have the relevant import licences to show they have come from a legitimate source. Earlier this year, the department required anyone holding old stocks to come forward and apply for a possession licence. All new imports are strictly monitored to ensure they are not being taken from endangered species. The overall levels of imports are also watched to minimise any threat to the bear population. Medicinal shops that hold licences are required to keep the specimens under lock and key and a register of all sales has to be maintained to allow continued monitoring by the department. 'The licensing rules are stricter than the requirement of CITES which only requests member countries to impose control over the import and export of endangered species,' one of the department's senior conservation officer attending the symposium, Richard Chan Ping-Kwong, said. Two animal rights groups, EarthCare and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said the problem of illegal sales had not been overcome. EarthCare's executive director Yeung Hau-man said the two groups had conducted a survey of 100 Chinese medicinal outlets and found that illegal specimens were still widely available. 'The department has done its job, but that still isn't enough to stop the bear parts being smuggled in. A cross-department body has to be set up if this problem is to be solved. That would need to involve Customs and Excise, the police and the Agriculture and Fisheries Department,' Mr Yeung said.