— Animal rights activists in Vietnam are confronting the government over a move to evict one of the country’s few bear sanctuaries for what it says are reasons of national security. Activists say the case is an example of government corruption in lucrative business deals.
Two moon bear cubs chewing a hanging rope toy in a special enclosure are the newest additions to a bear sanctuary in Tam Dao national park 70 kilometers from Hanoi. They were rescued from two men on their way to a province bordering China, where conservationists believe they were going to be sold to a farm that extracts bile from animals.
Animal bile is used in traditional Asian medicine as an anti-inflammatory, to treat fever, improve eyesight, and heal other ailments. Bile farming is illegal in Vietnam.
Despite the cubs' rescue, their future could still be uncertain. The bear sanctuary, run by Hong Kong-based Animals Asia
, says it is facing possible closure. The organization's Vietnam director, Tuan Bendixsen, said he was told the Ministry of Defense issued an order to evict the rescue center from the national park because of reasons of national security.
“MARD [the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development] convened a meeting between the different ministries and the Vinh Phuc provincial government and also the Vinh Phuc military commander as well," Tuan said. "From that meeting they issued a communique which means that the conclusion of the meeting is that the centre must be closed and moved elsewhere.”
Many of the 104 animals in the sanctuary have been saved from life in bile farms where animals are often kept drugged and restrained in small cages. Bile is extracted by jabbing needles into their gall bladders, sometimes as often as twice a day.
Tuan says apart from the center at Tam Dao, Vietnam has only a small number of sanctuaries for rescued bears with very limited space. He says the situation would worsen if Animals Asia is forced to close the Tam Dao center because authorities have neither the expertise nor the resources to look after rescued bears.
“It’s difficult now to get law enforcement. But if that’s the case [the center is closed down] it will be so much easier for them to say we cannot confiscate them because there’s nowhere for confiscated bears to go to,” Tuan said.
The controversy heightened when Animals Asia issued a press release accusing national park director Do Dinh Tien of lobbying the Ministry of Defense to evict the sanctuary for personal reasons. The charity said Tien wanted the earmarked land for a hotel project that allegedly has business ties to Tien's daughter.
Tien denies the accusations. He says he is a very junior person and does not know people in high positions. He says accusations that he is behind the eviction letter are nonsensical because he does not have any relatives or know any officials working at the Ministry of Defense.
But some say the rescue center's expansion could affect national security. Tran The Lien, director of the Natural Conservation Department under the Ministry of Agriculture, says he did not think the center would be evicted, but it would affect expansion plans. If the center is expanded into the Chau Dau valley it would meet a military base so it should be expanded in another direction.
The Vietnamese government banned bear bile farming in 1992, but people are allowed to keep bears as pets or tourist attractions. Owners were warned not to use the animals for bile. However, advertisements for bear bile are easy to find on the roadside. Around 4,000 bears are believed to be held in captivity in the country.
Animal Asia's Tuan says the final decision on the fate of the rescue center will be made by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, who gave permission for the sanctuary to be built in 2008. He says the government's commitment to end bear-bile farming would be cast in doubt if Dung backs the Defense Ministry.