THE Government was last night preparing to search the home of Giordano chairman Jimmy Lai Chee-ying after the Sunday Morning Post revealed the millionaire was keeping an endangered breed of bear in a metal cage in the back garden. An Agriculture and Fisheries Department (AFD) field officer, Lee Man-fai, visited the Shamshuipo villa yesterday and confirmed the animal in Mr Lai's garden was a protected species. Mr Lee said his department would apply for a search warrant and return to the premises. Owners of bears are required to possess a licence under the Animals and Plants (Protection of Endangered Species) Ordinance. The AFD earlier confirmed Mr Lai did not have a licence to keep a bear. ''We need to see how big the animal is so we can make plans for removing it,'' Mr Lee said. When the Sunday Morning Post saw the bear last week, it seemed to be in good physical condition but appeared docile, listless and bored. It is being kept in a cage no more than 1.8 metres long in the leafy garden of Mr Lai's house. Although there is enough room for the animal to turn, there is no space for it to run around. Animal welfare groups were outraged to learn about the caged bear. ''It's very sad, very cruel, and very irresponsible,'' said Jill Robinson of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. ''Bears roam for kilometres - they hunt, mate, feed and forage, and swim over a very wide area. Jimmy Lai is catering to neither their natural behaviour nor habitat,'' she said. Ms Robinson was concerned the metal slates in the cage would lacerate the bear's paws and called for the animal to be released. ''That would be a responsible gesture on his [Mr Lai's] part,'' she said. RSPCA superintendent Dennis Jones said his association was strongly opposed to ''keeping any wild animals caged in gardens, regardless of whether they have a licence or not - it is equal to life imprisonment''. Amy Lau of the World Wildlife Fund said keeping endangered species as pets was selfish. ''Some people think you are protecting the animal by keeping it because it is safe and fed, but animals have different requirements to humans and few are suited to captivity,'' she said. The maximum fine for possession of an endangered species without a licence is $25,000 for the first offence, and $50,000 and six months' imprisonment for subsequent convictions. AFD spokeswoman Pauline Ling said the department rarely issued licences to individuals for possession of endangered species. ''Applications for licences are assessed on individual merit and we have to be satisfied there is a good reason,'' she said. Any prospective owner of an endangered animal would have to provide a valid export licence, and convince the AFD it would be in the public interest for the animal to be kept, such as for scientific study, explained Ms Ling. A T-shirted Mr Lai refused to speak when the Sunday Morning Post visited his home yesterday, but admitted in an earlier telephone interview that he did not have a licence to keep the bear. ''I didn't know you needed one,'' he said. Mr Lai said he acquired the bear when it was a cub, adding he never expected it would grow to be so big. He said he now wanted to give the bear away, ''to a museum or something''. Mr Lai declined to comment further, saying: ''I don't want to discuss this . . . it's so petty.'' Mr Lai is chairman of Giordano Holdings and publisher of the popular Chinese-language Next Magazine, which is well-known for its exposes of the rich and famous.