Bears Win Reprieve in Vietnam

A sanctuary devoted to bears rescued from bile farms has won a reprieve from the government.

Luke Hunt

A wildlife sanctuary dedicated to bears rescued from bile farms has won a reprieve from the Vietnamese government following a high profile campaign aimed at countering a bid to have the area handed over for private development.

The decision was a sorely needed victory for animal rights campaigners and commonsense given the sanctuary was built after an agreement with the government was struck four years ago.

Built in Vinh Phuc Province on six hectares of land in the Red River Delta region in the country’s north, the U.S.$2 million center had become home to many different types of bears which had previously been held in cramp cages with a catheter fixed to their bile ducts, some for up to 30-years.

The bile is extracted and used in traditional Chinese — and scientifically unfounded — medicines which believers say will heal an assortment of illnesses, improve eyesight and act as an anti-inflammatory agent. Celebrities like the British comedians Ricky Gervais and Stephen Fry had rallied behind efforts to save the sanctuary.

Thousands of bears — including moon bears, brown bears and the Malaysian Sun bear — are regularly milked for their bile on Vietnamese farms despite a ban imposed in 1992. The law has proven difficult to enforce because it still allows bears to be kept as pets and the practice still finds public acceptance despite heavy fines.

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The decision was reached Monday in a meeting that included the Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung. His presence was required after allegations that a private company had attempted to acquire the site for development and the all powerful military declared the area of strategic national interest.

The sanctuary’s operators Hong Kong-based Animals Asia had claimed Do Dinh Tien, the director of the Tam Do National Park of lobbying the Defense Ministry to evict the sanctuary, which includes 77 local staff, to allow construction of a hotel through a business deal with links to his daughter.

He denied the charges, arguing he was simple man with no senior contacts within the military.

Land grabbing has emerged as a critical issue in Vietnam and across much of South East Asia with corporations and the politically-connected competing with farmers – the overwhelming majority of whom live a hand to mouth existence — for access to precious land.

Vietnam has launched a nationwide review of land management practices aimed at preventing disputes following a series of clashes between long term land uses and the authorities.