Vietnam park director fired for trying to evict bear sanctuary

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The director of a national park has been sacked for attempting to evict a bear sanctuary on spurious grounds allegedly cooked up in a high-profile corruption-ridden land dispute.

Do Dinh Tien, director of the Tam Dao National Park, will be replaced by his deputy, Ha Cong Khai, starting May 1, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development has said in a statement.

According to the ministry, since 2011, Tien has repeatedly obstructed the operations of the Vietnam Bear Rescue Center based in the park located in Vinh Phuc Province, about 42 miles northwest of Hanoi.

Tien aimed to save part of the center's land for an eco-tourism project planned by a company of which one of his "relatives" is a 10 percent shareholder, the ministry said without elaborating.

Animals Asia, the Hong Kong-based animal welfare group which runs the US$2-million center, had accused Tien of aggressively lobbying the government to evict the sanctuary to give way for a hotel project planned by the Truong Giang Company, of which his daughter is listed as a founding member.

Last October, the agriculture ministry told Animals Asia that the sanctuary should close down and move elsewhere if it can.

The request was made following a July conclusion by the Ministry of Defense, which said that the expansion of the center, currently home to 104 Asiatic black bears rescued from Vietnamese bear farms and the illegal wildlife trade, would get in the way of national defense work in the area.

Faced with the prospect of closing the center, Animals Asia had mounted a public relations campaign against the eviction, enlisting widespread support from international politicians to British celebrities.

A number of conservation groups, foreign embassies in Vietnam, and US politicians sent a letter to PM Dung, urging him to not close the sanctuary.

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The organization said evicting the center would spell doom for the mental and physical well-being of the bears, leave over 70 Vietnamese jobless and compromise the nation's commitment to wildlife conservation.

With the story spreading throughout local media outlets, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung rejected the plan to close the center earlier this year, saying it could stay and pursue its plans to expand.

PM Dung also asked that the agriculture ministry to clarify the responsibilities of the park's director in implementing regulations on the bear sanctuary.

Any violations found must be dealt with seriously in accordance with the law, it said.

Activists see it as a welcome, rare victory for conservation in the country, but are not confident this heralds an era where conservation efforts would prevail over vested interests.

Animals Asia set up the Tam Dao bear rescue center in 2005 after the agriculture ministry issued a directive to phase out bear farming, a vocation notorious for the extraction of bear bile for traditional medicine, which is mostly sold to South Korean and Chinese tourists.

Those who sell bear bile extract it regularly in what are agonizing procedures for the animals. Usually, between 100-120ml of bile is withdrawn at a time and sold for between $3 and $6 per milliliter.

Around 3,500 bears are still being farmed in Vietnam, concentrated mostly in the north. Vietnam, China and South Korea are the only countries in the world where bear farming is legal.

Conservationists have praised the sanctuary as one of the most successful wildlife conservation programs in Vietnam.

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