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Rattled cages

A sanctuary in Vietnam is fighting tooth and claw an eviction order that would put its more than 100 bears back behind bars. Simon Parry investigates

 

With his crooked features and stocky build, Zebedee ambles around his grassy enclosure with the swagger of a retired prize fighter - sniffing insouciantly at the air, casually sizing up his fellow moon bears and lazily contemplating his next meal.

Life has been mellow for this mild-mannered bruiser since 2009, when he was rescued from a hellish existence in the dark kitchen of a home in central Vietnam, where, from infancy, he had been crammed into a tiny cage and milked for his bile.

"The conditions we found him in were completely shocking," says Animals Asia veterinarian Kirsty Officer, who helped nurse Zebedee back to health at the charity's Moon Bear Rescue Centre, on the mountain slopes of Tam Dao National Park, in northern Vietnam.

The family in Hue province who handed Zebedee over amid a crackdown on the bear-bile trade claimed they had bought him as a cub out of pity after he was beaten with a plank by a group of soldiers. Outside their home, however, stood a notice board advertising fresh bear bile for sale.

"He didn't have any light - not even unnatural light, let alone sunshine. He was in a small cage with a tiny square where his waste washed out underneath. He didn't see the sun or the light of day for 14 years," Officer says.

"It's so nice to see him lying out in the sun today. He has a big enclosure and he's a really playful bear and enjoys being out in the sunshine," she adds.

"Most of his teeth had to be removed so it takes him a long time to nibble through his food, but he definitely makes sure he gets his share."

Zebedee is one of 104 bears rescued from Vietnam's brutal bile trade since the Hong Kong charity set up its centre in Tam Dao in 2005. As well as giving the bears new lives, it has contributed to a major reduction in the trafficking of bile extracted from captive bears.

NOW, HOWEVER,THE FUTURE of these bears and the 77 Vietnamese staff employed to care for them is in jeopardy.

On October 5, Vietnam's Ministry of Defence issued an order instructing Animals Asia to shut its sanctuary and vacate the site, which had been given to the charity indefinitely in an agreement signed by then-prime minister Phan Van Khai seven years ago. The charity has been told by officials that the site is of "national defence significance" and that the sanctuary must move elsewhere - a process that will take at least two years and will involve putting Zebedee and the other rescued bears back into cages not much larger than those they were liberated from.

"I just can't imagine how they will cope," says Animals Asia Vietnam director Tuan Benedixsen. "It's like saying to someone who has been wrongly jailed for 10 years and who has just had their freedom for a few months that they have to go back to prison. It will undo all the good work we have done to get them back to health in the past three or four years."

In the three weeks since the eviction order was announced, tens of thousands of people have written to current Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, appealing for him to reverse the decision. Celebrities, including British comedians Ricky Gervais and Stephen Fry, have tweeted their support for the campaign, visible to about 40 million Twitter followers.

"We have had tremendous support so far - not just from outside Vietnam but from inside as well," says Benedixsen.

"All the foreign embassies are behind us. We have 11 ambassadors who have signed a letter to the prime minister protesting the impending closure. We have a lot of people here in Vietnam blogging to raise awareness of the issue. Everyone is talking about it, which is good."

For all the outpouring of sympathy, however, Animals Asia is up against an implacable and historically formidable foe: the Vietnamese military.

BEHIND THE EVICTION ORDER, it appears, lies a murky tale of opportunism and profiteering. In April last year the director of Tam Dao National Park - Do Dinh Tien - asked Animals Asia to hand over half of its 12-hectare land for a tourist development. Animals Asia says the tourism company involved is partly owned by Tien's daughter.

"Of course we said no," says Benedixsen. "We said, 'It's not our land, it's the government's land.' And from that time onwards, Mr Tien started a campaign against us. He claimed we were polluting the environment and that we didn't have proper planning permission or documentation.

"It came to a head in April this year when the Ministry of Agriculture intervened and ordered him to allocate land according to the agreement," he says. "We thought that was the end of it. Then we were told we were under investigation for polluting the river that runs through our sanctuary.

"Mr Tien incited the local people to raise a petition against us to say that their well and their small lake had been polluted, and [that] it was causing cancer to people living there. We were investigated and, after two months, we were cleared. The government said there was no basis to the allegations at all.

"Again, we thought that was the end of it. But then we heard the Ministry of Defence had issued an order to stop us [from] building. The next thing we knew, we were told we must move. We were completely shocked," says Benedixsen.

He is convinced the reasons behind the eviction have nothing to do with security and all to do with profit. With its lush, wooded forests, the district in which the sanctuary is based attracts one million visitors annually, and tourism is said to be growing at a rate of 15 per cent a year.

Last year, the Vietnamese government passed a law allowing national park land to be rented out for tourism projects for the first time, and at remarkably low rates. With its prime location and well-developed infrastructure, the sanctuary became a natural target for developers.

"That is why they are moving in on our centre," Benedixsen says. "They wanted half our land because it is flat land that was originally farmland, and it is easy to build on. If they went elsewhere, they would have to spend much more on infrastructure."

Animals Asia founder and chief executive Jill Robinson describes the issue as one shrouded in "layers of deceit and corruption".

"We are shell-shocked that one man can wield this much power over something that has the prime minister's approval," she says.

When he first proposed taking over part of the land, Tien said it was to make way for an "amusement centre", Robinson says. He later claimed he wanted to set up an eco-tourism project.

"It would cut our land in half and wouldn't allow us to fulfil our mission of rescuing 200 bears," she says. "We said no and we got government support. Then [Tien] put out untrue rumours that we were polluting the surrounding area. Then, when that was dismissed, he somehow got the Ministry of Defence involved.

"We are hearing new things all the time and it just gets more and more absurd. We are now told Mr Tien wants to open a rescue centre of his own, right next to ours. Presumably, once we get thrown off the land, he will very rapidly move in and use all our enclosures and dens and [our] construction area for his own centre."

Robinson believes, however, that any rescue centre Tien opens is likely to be radically different.

"He has already said it will be a rescue and breeding centre," she says. "He hasn't specifically said what animals will be involved, but it doesn't take too much imagination to interpret that it will include endangered species.

"There are already myriad farms breeding tigers right now and the industry is out of control … And don't forget that Vietnam is at the centre of the outcry over the trade in rhinoceros horns.

"Tigers, bears and rhinos are the animals that are [profitable]. They are making a lot of money for a lot of people in Vietnam now and, I have to say, that includes people in authority, it seems."

When Post Magazine contacted Tien by phone and asked him to respond to the allegations made against him by Animals Asia, he dismissed them.

"None of it is true," he says. "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 declined to give a fuller interview or to discuss the matter further.

So far, the objections to the eviction appear to have had little impact. The Ministry of Defence is said to be preparing a report for Prime Minister Dung's office, with details of its reasons for the reclassification of the land. A decision is expected within weeks.

If the eviction order is carried out against their group, which has been working with the government since the 1990s, Robinson believes it will set a dangerous precedent for foreign NGOs and businesses.

"What will people think when they realise that if you embark on a project and invest millions of dollars in it, the agreement isn't worth the paper it's written on, even if it's signed by the prime minister?

"We have injected so much money into this. It isn't only the US$2 million construction and the US$2 million-plus spent on feeding and caring for the bears and paying the salaries of our staff. The whole infrastructure of the sanctuary has been established in such good faith by Animals Asia and now it is crumbling around our ears.

"Today, Vietnam is welcoming NGOs … especially environmental initiatives. This is just going to make everything fall down like a pack of cards. Why would anyone have the confidence to go ahead with any project in Vietnam after this?

"We have given this project everything - absolutely everything," she says. "Now it is just being thrown away."

Living under the threat of closure is becoming increasingly stressful for staff at the sanctuary. "It's like a big black cloud hanging over us and no one quite knows how it is going to go," says Officer.

Benedixsen says most of the staff are from local farming families. "They have been asking me, 'What will happen to us if you move? We can't go with you. Our families are here. We can't just pack up and go.'"

The greatest concern, however, is for the bears.

"The effect on the bears is going to be catastrophic - it really is," says Robinson. "Many of the bears arrive with mobility problems because they have been incarcerated in cages for so many years, and we have only just got them on a level plane of medication and got them going out into enclosures, foraging and playing with friends.

"They are going to be put back in cages while a new sanctuary is built and goodness knows what that is going to do to their psychological health," she says.

Animals Asia staff are particularly worried about one of their wards, a sun bear named Sassy, who has been at the centre for years but who, Robinson says, "has never fully recovered from her past".

"A bear like Sassy gets very stressed with new things that happen, new sights and smells around her. She becomes cautious, upset and disturbed. She has been historically really difficult to manage and she is just getting to the stage now where the whole team understands her requirements and is managing her superbly well. Any deviation from that is going to send her rocketing back into psychological trauma."

Officer, meanwhile, notes that the bears have become used to being well-fed and cared for - and they have learned to trust people. They are also on daily medication for conditions such as arthritis, and they need to exercise to stop their joints from stiffening up.

"So to put bears like that back into very small places would definitely be detrimental to their recovery and could speed up the onset of debilitating arthritis. Then there are other bears we monitor on a daily basis for things like skin conditions and recovering digestive conditions. These are bears that need really close monitoring."

THE IRONYOF THEPLIGHT facing Animals Asia is that it comes at a time when real progress in the crackdown on the bear-bile trade has been made.

"We did think it was going superbly well in Vietnam," says Robinson. "The government was keeping to the spirit of its agreement to bring bear farming to an end. It is an illegal practice and the number of bears [being farmed for bile] has been reduced from 4,000 to 2,000 in recent years. There are inspired public education programmes helped by the authorities, especially in the north of the country.

"We have had over 130 groups signing a letter to the prime minister. Everyone is outraged."

The coming weeks will determine if that progress, and the opposition to the planned closure, is sufficient to allow Zebedee, Sassy and the other bears to remain in the sanctuary.

Celebrities' support makes a "phenomenal difference", Robinson notes, in the campaign to make the authorities reconsider the charity's original proposal. "We want them to acknowledge it was signed by the prime minister and we want them to do the right thing by the bears."

The Vietnamese military does not retreat easily once it has taken a position, however.

"The Ministry of Defence is obviously the most powerful ministry in the country and that is worrying for us," she admits. "I think only the prime minister can save us now. I just hope that good sense and integrity prevails."

 


 

ANIMAL RIGHTS - WITNESS TO CRUELTY

Vietnam's bear bile trade is fuelled in part by Asian tourists, including visitors from Hong Kong, whose custom in popular resorts such as Halong Bay helps keep the illicit industry alive.

Tour buses stop at villages in the country's northeast, where bears are kept in cages with crude catheters forced into their stomachs to milk them for their bile - which is used in traditional medicine and is said to cure liver disease and a variety of other illnesses.

In village after village on the outskirts of Halong city, a grotesque cottage industry has sprung up, with scores of families - operating from yards, tin shacks, gardens and stretches of scrubland - making a living out of the endangered bears.

Crammed into small cages they will most likely never leave, the bears are milked for a fluid that sells for up to US$25 a millilitre, equivalent to the weekly wages of a Vietnamese factory worker.

Riddled with disease and scarred with wounds caused by banging themselves against their cages, the bears are usually drugged before having syringes and catheters regularly inserted into their gall bladders to extract the bile.

It is mixed with wine or taken in powder form in the belief it will improve sexual potency and treat a variety of ailments ranging from hangovers to liver and heart disease.

In one village I visited in 2010 with Animals Asia investigators, there were more than 350 bears - or one for every household - being kept captive for their bile. The residents are able to exploit a loophole in the law by claiming they keep the bears as pets or tourist attractions. Wary of our presence and of the local government official accompanying us on our visit, families at home after home insisted they were keeping the bears as pets and had not milked them for bile since laws were introduced officially banning the practice in the 1990s.

Littered on the floor around the cages, however, were wire nooses, canvas straps, syringes, boxes of antibiotics and other tell-tale signs that these bears were being milked.

Bears, some with paws missing from being trapped in the wild, others with abdominal wounds from bile extraction, rocked back and forth in their cages, gnawing at the bars with broken teeth and banging their heads repeatedly against the cages. When we looked in, some shrank back in terror into the corner of their cages, which are barely large enough for them to turn around in, while others threw themselves against the bars in panic.

One bear farmer with 29 animals claimed she kept them "for conservation purposes". Another with 30 bears claimed he had paid US$5,000 for each bear and offered to sell them to us for US$3,000 each.

The practice of milking bears for their bile is relatively recent. The first bear farms began appearing in North Korea in the early 1980s before spreading to China and then into Vietnam.

Nguyen Xuan Huong, chairman of the Vietnamese Traditional Medicine Association, said the bile extracted in the crude conditions seen near Halong Bay was so contaminated and poisonous that it could kill. Huong said he had personally treated three patients who died slow painful deaths after consuming bear bile, including an acupuncturist friend who drank it in wine given to him by his son.

Huong said he had not prescribed bear bile in 40 years of practising traditional medicine. Its use was promoted by word of mouth among Vietnam's nouveau riche, he said, but it had no medicinal benefits that were not available from herbal treatments.

The solution, he said, was a ban on keeping bears. "Law enforcement needs to be stronger against people who keep bears in farms," he said. "Keeping bears should be prohibited altogether to deal with this problem."

 

 

 

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