As the black market in illegal potency supplements booms in the mountains of western Virginia, state authorities say they are increasing their law enforcement efforts.

Last year, state officials reported the increase of illegal traffic in such regulated goods as ginseng and bear gallbladders -- both widely reputed to be libido enhancers -- in many stretches of rural Virginia. They attributed the increase in part to the state's ailing economy, which apparently is causing more people to turn to illicit trade to pad their take-home pay.

State game officials announced last month that they had successfully penetrated an illegal trading ring. "Operation Triple Edge," carried out by the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries with West Virginia and federal authorities, resulted in the arrest of 18 people on more than 90 state and federal charges.

The arrests were made mostly in western localities, including Alleghany, Craig and Greene counties, officials said. Two of those arrested were from Mercer County, W.Va.

Harvesting of ginseng, a wild mountain root, is regulated by state and federal laws because of scarcity. The bitter-tasting plant can bring as much $220 a pound from dealers, who ship much of the harvest to the Far East.

In some Asian countries, ginseng and wild animal parts have been coveted for centuries because of their reputed medicinal and aphrodisiac powers, said Col. Gerald Simmons, chief of law enforcement for the game department.

"The value of {illegal} game on the black market is definitely on the way up," he said. "That's required us to be more alert to violations."