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Vietnam PM Grants Bear Sanctuary a Reprieve

By Leanne Younes Moon bears ‘Mara’ and ‘Angus’ – two of the rescued bears at the Animals Asia sanctuary in North Vietnam – are free to enjoy their freedom a while longer, following a last-minute reprieve (see our previous post on this sanctuary). In an 11th hour decision in January, the Prime Minister of Vietnam,...

Angus the rescued moon bear at the Tam Dao sanctuary. Photo courtesy of Animals Asia

By Leanne Younes

Moon bears ‘Mara’ and ‘Angus’ – two of the rescued bears at the Animals Asia sanctuary in North Vietnam – are free to enjoy their freedom a while longer, following a last-minute reprieve (see our previous post on this sanctuary).

In an 11th hour decision in January, the Prime Minister of Vietnam, Nguyen Tan Dung, granted permission for the animal welfare organisation Animals Asia Foundation (AAF) to remain at the Tam Dao site and continue its work rescuing bears from the illegal bile trade.

The state-of-the-art sanctuary, built on the edge of Tam Dao National Park, has been at the centre of a high-profile land dispute since July 2011, threatening the rescued Moon and Sun bears and the livelihood of 85 local and international staff.

The centre was purpose built and paid for by Animals Asia Foundation, with the infrastructure and development creating a tourism drawcard. The increasingly valuable land was being sought after by a property development company.

The rescue centre was served with an eviction notice late last year following an aggressive campaign led by Tam Dao National Park director Do Dinh Tien, aimed at forcing the staff and bears off the land.

Vietnam Director of Animals Asia Foundation Dr. Tuan Bendixsen said the land had been promised, possibly even sold or re-leased, to developers.

“We were told our work at Tam Dao had made the site an attractive proposition, a ‘magnet’ for developers who now want to capitalise on the work already invested.

“There is plenty of other land but they wanted this land because it’s quite obvious we have done a good job with all the facilities, the people visiting the sanctuary,’’ he said.

The threatened eviction would have been in direct violation of the Vietnam Government’s 2005 Memorandum of Understanding in which AAF was granted the right to develop a facility on 12 hectares of the Tam Dao National Park, where it could house and rehabilitate bears rescued from the bile industry.

“This centre (At Tam Dao) has been purpose-built,’’ Dr. Bendixsen said. “These buildings, the enclosures, the fencing, the equipment and rehabilitation aides; it has all been custom made from money that has been donated and fundraised by dedicated staff and people from all over the world who just want to help the bears,’’ he said.

Mara the rescued moon bear at the Tam Dao sanctuary
Mara at the sanctuary. Photo courtesy of Animals Asia

“Since we started in 2005; we have invested more than US$2 million to build and maintain roads, buildings, and facilities and a specially equipped surgery and medical center.’’

AAF is a charity that is devoted to ending the barbaric practice of bear bile farming and improving the welfare of animals in China and Vietnam, in particular the moon bears.

Asiatic black bears are known as ‘moon bears’ because of the distinctive white crescent on their chests. They produce bile with the highest amount of ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA) – a chemical made naturally to protect the liver and prevent gallstones during the bears’ hibernation.

“These are bears we have rescued from hell,” Dr. Bendixsen says.

“They have spent years – often their entire lives – in cramped cages, unable to turn around, blind from the darkness, starved, crazed from the ill-treatment and with paws damaged from being caught in traps and because they often gnaw their paws out of misery, pain, and boredom.

“When we rescued them, many of their teeth were decayed and broken, from poor nutrition and from biting the cage bars; huge patches of skin rubbed raw from pounding and rubbing their heads in frustration and boredom, injuries from being subdued during repeated bile extractions, massive infections and perforations in the abdomen and the gallbladder. It is truly shocking,’’ he said.

During the bile extraction process, the bears are subdued and have their abdomens jabbed numerous times with long needles in an effort to locate the gall bladder and extract the bile. The puncture wounds often become infected and after years of poor nutrition and filthy conditions, the bears require months of medical support when they get to Tam Dao.

The bile is reputed to cure everything from bruises to cancer, and is consumed as a libido-enhancing tonic and hangover cure throughout Asia. Bear bile farming is illegal in Vietnam and the Moon bear is listed internationally as a critically endangered species, but this has not halted or even slowed the rampant trade.

The bile sells for exorbitant amounts and that means giving up the bears is not an option for many Vietnamese “farmers.’’

For Animals Asia Vietnam director Dr. Tuan Bendixsen, the situation is intolerable and saving the bears has become his life work.

In 2011, scientists estimated there were fewer than 200 bears left in the wild, judging by the lack of physical evidence such as bear droppings and claw marks on trees. Many of the older villagers in northern Vietnam say they have not seen bears in the wild for many years.

But, Dr. Bendixsen says, the Prime Minister’s decision on the sanctuary means those bears still captive on farms in Vietnam will have somewhere to go when they are finally rescued.

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Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn