Nation's sole bear sanctuary under threat

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Drive for profit outweighs need to protect wildlife, animal welfare group says

 
This handout picture released on October 5 by Animals Asia shows two rescued bear cubs in a cage after they were seized by Forest Protection Department (FPD) from smugglers in northern province of Lai Chau, some 450 km north west Hanoi. The cubs were transferred into the care of Animals Asia who then transported them to its Vietnam Bear Rescue Center in Tam Dao, near Hanoi. Photo: AFP

The only bear rescue center in Vietnam is facing closure in a controversial move that apparently pits animal welfare activists against private real estate developers.

For once, it is not lack of funds or space that is threatening the security of the 104 bears that the rescue center now houses, but national security interest, with the Ministry of Defense saying a proposed expansion of the project would affect national defense works in the area.

The animal welfare group that runs the center has, however, accused the director of the national park in which the sanctuary is located of swaying the decision for personal gain.

"This is not a defense issue; it's an issue of profit," said Tuan Bendixsen, Vietnam director of Animals Asia, a Hong Kong-based conservation group which seeks to eliminate cruelty to animals.

Animals Asia built the bear rescue center in Tam Dao National Park in Vinh Phuc Province, about 42 miles north of Hanoi, in 2005. It is currently home to 104 bears, all rescued from Vietnamese bear bile farms and illegal wildlife trading.

The Vietnamese government in 2009 allowed Animals Asia to build another 12-hectare enclosure to house 101 more bears. But in September last year, Do Dinh Tien, director of the Tam Dao National Park, stopped the expansion work saying the location of the enclosure was against the park's planning.

Last April, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development stepped in, asking the park director to allocate land to the bear rescue center in line with the original agreement with Animals Asia.

But in a July letter to the agriculture ministry, the Ministry of Defense said expansion of the sanctuary would directly affect the defense area and national defense works in the area.

That was not the end of the story.

"Initially, we thought we couldn't expand. So it's okay as we already have the center built," Bendixsen told Vietweek. "We think we can resolve the issue later on."

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But after a recent meeting with the defense ministry, the agriculture ministry on October 5 officially informed Animals Asia that the center is to be closed and move elsewhere if able.

Now Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung will have the final say, as it was he who originally approved the project.

"But [the agriculture ministry] will recommend closure because they can not go against [the defense ministry]," Bendixsen said.

Animals Asia has accused the Tam Dao park director Do Duc Tien of aggressively lobbying the defense ministry to evict the sanctuary to give way for a hotel project to be carried out by a company of which his daughter is a founding member.

Tien has shrugged off the allegations.

"That is not true," he told Vietweek on the phone. "No final decision has been reached, so I cannot say anything else at this moment."

The national park is part of a famous hill resort in the north of the country, and many hotels and other facilities have been set up in Tam Dao over the last two decades.

The closure of the rescue center means all the 104 bears will be forced to return to cages to be relocated, which will have a major negative impact on their mental and physical well-being, Animals Asia said in a press release Wednesday (October 10).

It is likely to take at least two years to establish a new center with outdoor enclosures, it said.

"A lot of problems at the moment," Bendixsen said. "We don't know what to do. The agriculture ministry says they don't know either."

In 2005, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development issued a directive on phasing out bear farming, a vocation notorious for the extraction of bear bile. It permitted owners to keep their bears but prohibited the acquisition of new ones. Farmers who already had captive bears were allowed to maintain them as tourist attractions. Thanks to this legal loophole, some bear farms continue to extract bile and sell it mostly to Korean and Chinese visitors.

Those who sell bear bile extract it regularly in an agonizing procedure for the animals. The bile is used in traditional medicine. Usually, between 100-120ml is withdrawn at a time and sold for between US$3 and $6 per milliliter. Around 3,500 bears are being farmed in Vietnam, concentrated mostly in the north.

Vietnam, China and South Korea are the only three countries in the world to legalize bear farming.

It was in this milieu that the Tam Dao Bear Rescue Center was set up. Conservationists have praised the sanctuary as one of the most successful conservation models in Vietnam.

Now, no matter how the dispute between the Animals Asia and the Tam Dao park's director ends up, the bears are likely to pay the price.

"If indeed the center shuts down, it will be a serious loss in our efforts to protect bears as the Tam Dao center run by Animals Asia is the principal location for receiving confiscated bears," said Douglas Hendrie, technical advisor for Education for Nature-Vietnam, a local environmental group.

"Without the center, we will have a much more difficult road ahead."

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