Vietnam Bear Sanctuary Ouster Halted

Apparently with Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung's own intervention, Vietnam has halted a controversial plan to close an internationally acclaimed bear rescue center in a national park to allow construction of a commercial ecotourism project.

The premier said in a statement yesterday that the center can stay and that if "violations" are uncovered, the perpetrators will be severely dealt with. The daughter of Tam Dao National Park Director Do Dinh Tien appears to have a stake in the planned project, along with Nguyen Tuan Phu, a former head of the Economic Department of the Prime Minister's own office.

Former Economic Director Phu was in fact one of the people responsible for the issuance of the regulation permitting the national parks to lease land for for-profit tourism development. Within months, now retired, he reportedly moved to turn the new regulation to his advantage.

The defeat of the project and its well-connected backers is a rare victory in a country where all too often developments promoted by top government officials simply steamroll the opposition. Seven land reform activists were sentenced to prison in June of 2011 for pushing the government too far, for instance.

Animals Asia, the Hong Kong-based animal rights organization that operates the bear sanctuary, garnered nearly 60,000 signatures on a petition to the PM, mobilized celebrities and a dozen ambassadors, and attracted thousands of backers on Facebook.

A number of national newspapers covered the threatened eviction in depth. They included, importantly, the Communist Party's organ, Nhan Dan, and Tuan Vietnam, an on-line magazine that is avidly read by the nation's intellectual elite.

As Asia Sentinel reported on Dec. 18, the development project that sought to supplant the 11-hectare bear sanctuary was a US$2 million ecological theme park and resort, according to documents obtained by Animals Asia. The ouster of the bear park appeared to have the approval of senior officials of the government, apparently including senior representatives of the Ministries of Defense and Agriculture & Rural Development.

The denizens of the park are captured or farmed Asian black bears, sometimes called Moon bears, and Malaysian sun bears. The bears are sometimes confiscated by police or forest rangers, and sometimes turned over by people who have wearied of keeping them as pets or tourist attractions.

They were also rescued from bear bile farms in which the animals' bile ducts are lanced for the active ingredient, ursodeoxycholic acid. Bear bile is believed by Asians to be effective in treating a wide range of ailments and diseases. More than 90 percent reportedly adds value to oriental wines, eye drops and general tonics. Only about 200 bears are believed to still roam Vietnam's mountains, and perhaps 2,400 are in captivity, including about 500 at Vietnam's bile farms.

Between "milkings," the bears are confined in cramped individual cages. Bile farms concentrated near Vietnam's Ha Long Bay reportedly hold 40-50 bears each, and are a regular stop on outings marketed by Korean travel agencies. Farmed bear bile has been outlawed in South Korea.

Animals Asia was established in Hanoi in 2005 and since 1998 has grown to employ some 300 people. It houses about 150 rescued bears at a sanctuary in China's Sichuan province plus the 104 at the Tam Dao National Park facility north of Hanoi.

Early in 2006, the NGO acquired a 20 year lease on the site of its sanctuary, which is just north of the Tam Dao National Park headquarters.

Already a veteran of several years working with the Ministry of Agriculture & Rural Development as a volunteer and consultant, Animals Asia's director in Vietnam, Tuan Bendixsen, took care that the deal was done properly, getting the lease approved by the local Communist Party committee as well as by responsible government officials, fully coordinated at the agriculture ministry and its subordinate Forestry Agency, and approved in 2008 by Prime Minister Dung himself.

The NGO then ploughed over US$2 million into infrastructure, including medical facilities and bear-friendly enclosures, and proceeded to rehabilitate as many bears as space at the sanctuary allowed.

Squeeze Play

By early in 2011, the Tam Dao sanctuary's facilities were full to capacity. AA was planning to develop the other half of its 11 hectare site to make room for another 100 or so bears when it was approached by a representative of the newly-formed Truong Giang Tam Dao (TGTD) Company. The emissary asked Animals Said to cede the right to use the undeveloped portion of the site to TGTD. The AA leaders told him that was not possible, and went on planning the sanctuary's expansion.

TGTD had set its sights on establishing a 48 hectare "ecology park" in the valley upstream of the bear sanctuary, taking advantage of new regulations permitting the national park service to rent out park land for tourism development. The remaining unbuilt land leased to the sanctuary and access through the sanctuary itself were essential to the success of the ecology park scheme.

Animals Asia, however, succeeded in holding onto its land in the face of heavy pressure that included military pronouncements that the refuge was a security concern.