Last December I wrote about the fate of Asia’s moon bears, thousands of which spend their lives crushed in small cages, wearing armored jackets to restrict their movements. The bears are “farmed” for their bile, which is extracted with needles and permanent catheters and used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to treat inflammation, fever, and convulsion. Many modern practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine have renounced bile farming as barbaric and unnecessary -- there are dozens of plant substitutes -- but the practice continues nonetheless.
Before writing the article for OnEarth, I visited a moon-bear rescue center in Chengdu, China run by the Animals Asia Foundation, a Hong Kong-based non-profit. The foundation negotiates the release of farmed bears and houses them in wooded, semi-natural enclosures filled with playground equipment and wading pools. It provides state-of-the-art veterinary care and uses pathology findings to build the case for a permanent end to bear farming. Animals Asia runs two rescue centers; the other is located in Vietnam’s Tam Dao National Park near Hanoi.
The Vietnamese sanctuary, which opened in 2005 under an agreement with the national government, houses 104 bears. But now its future is in jeopardy. Last month Vietnam’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development notified Animals Asia that it was being evicted from the national park. According to the foundation, park director Do Dinh Tien had lobbied Vietnam’s defense ministry to declare the area critical to national defense. “The expansion of the bear rescue center in this valley will have direct impact on military projects,” says a letter written in July by Vice Defense Minister Do Ba Ty. The letter provides no further explanation, according to the Associated Press.
Animals Asia believes there are more materialistic reasons behind the planned eviction: Tien’s daughter is part-owner of a company that wants to develop the area into an “ecological tourism and entertainment project.” Tien has denied lobbying for the company and claims a hands-off relationship to the eviction. “Everything is carrying on as normal at the sanctuary, and we are waiting for the government's decision on the future of the site,” he told the South China Morning Post recently. Foundation officials are not convinced. “This one man, whose daughter stands to directly profit from the relocation of the center, should not be allowed this much power,” Animals Asia’s Vietnam director, Tuan Bendixsen, said in a recent statement.
“The news of our eviction has been so terribly shocking to everyone in the team, and the very thought of moving is unthinkable to us all,” Jill Robinson, Animals Asia’s founder and CEO, wrote to me last week. “What it boils down to is 77 employees being out of work, over 100 bears being moved back into cages while a new facility is being built, and a sanctuary that thousands of people across the world have funded in good faith now in danger of being closed down. Tragically, it will see bears that have finally recovered physically and psychologically from being caged and hurt on the farms now facing removal from a peaceful, happy environment that had changed their whole lives.”
The organization has launched a campaign to stave off the eviction and has attracted the support of 140 NGOs, along with luminaries ranging from primatologist Jane Goodall to comedians Ricky Gervais and Stephen Fry. A group of Democratic members of Congress, led by Rep. San Farr of California, have written to Vietnam’s prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, challenging the claim of national defense significance. This “unprecedented support,” Robinson wrote, “is giving us hope.” But she knows there’s a fierce battle ahead with an uncertain outcome.
“Animals Asia has complied with every single regulation that has seen our sanctuary developing over the years, in a project that has the approval of the prime minister himself. What sort of message does this carry to current and future investors in Vietnam that a document ratified and encouraged by the government ultimately has no worth at all? That a charity can be treated so shabbily is shameful.”