Safe behind a three-metre-high electric fence, a moon bear swings suspended on a rubber tyre, limbs stretched out to the four points of the compass. Its mien, bulk and glossy coat all suggest a healthy, happy existence.
But the bear has not always had it easy. A closer look reveals a missing paw, chewed off in distress over the years that it was locked in a cage, drugged and poked with a needle twice a day to extract its bile before it was rescued.
The Vietnam Bear Rescue Centre is operated by international organisation Animals Asia in Tam Dao national park, about 70 kilometres north of Hanoi. Currently, 99 sun bears and moon bears live here, confiscated from bile farms or given up by pet owners.
There are around 4,000 bears in farms across the country, and only a few hundred left in the wild.
The sanctuary has been hailed as one of the most successful conservation stories in Vietnam, a country with a rampant trade in animal products and rapid deforestation.
However, Animals Asia warns that its future could be at stake if plans to build a hotel in the area get the go-ahead.
The hotel is the brainchild of Truong Giang Tam Dao Joint Stock Company. Established in April 2011, the company sought permission to rent 48 hectares of land from the national park, under legislation introduced last year allowing tourist resorts with environmental credentials to be built on parkland.
Six hectares of the planned development is on land that Animals Asia says is theirs under an agreement with the Agriculture Ministry. In September the director of the national park, Do Dinh Tien, halted construction on the second phase of Animals Asia’s $3.4m-project to build more enclosures to house 101 more bears.
“As soon as workers began digging for the foundations of the new bear enclosure, they were told to stop,” Animals Asia country director Tuan Bendixsen said.
Just two days earlier, the park director wrote to the ministry for approval of Truong Giang’s application to rent the land, claiming the bear sanctuary is missing required paperwork, including an environmental-impact assessment.
Bendixsen said the centre has written approval from the prime minister and a decision from the ministry, and has already invested $240,000 in compensation for the relocation of nine families. Any delay to the sanctuary extension could give the bile industry a boost, he warned.
“The Forest Protection Department works very hard to save bears from bile farms,” he said. “But they don’t have enough resources. If they have nowhere safe to take confiscated bears, they will have to leave them in the farms and what kind of deterrent will that be to the industry?”
Citing Truong Giang’s registration papers, Animals Asia claim Tien’s daughter is one of the four founders of the development company. Strangely enough, the cited telephone number and address on the documents led to nothing more than a grocery shop, whose owner said she had no knowledge of the company in question. Tien has since denied that his daughter is a founder of Truong Giang.
“Many companies apply to develop land in the national park. It’s up to the ministry to decide who is allowed to,” he said.
To resolve the dispute, the government’s Administration of Forestry called a meeting in Hanoi recently with conservationists and ministry officials.
Authorities decided that Animals Asia was indeed missing some paperwork, but only those relating to recent changes in environmental regulation. The group was ordered to submit more documents.
Tran The Lien, director of the government’s Natural Conservation Department, admitted that national parks in good locations are hot property at the moment.
“I am under a lot of pressure dealing with land disputes between eco-tourism projects and conservationists,” said Tran The Lien, adding that he is currently working on another case in Ba Vi, 48 kilometres from Hanoi, where developers have clashed with local residents.
While the Tam Dao park problem could be settled in favour of Animals Asia, Bendixsen remains cautious.
“Now we have to wait to see the official document they release, in case the wording is ambiguous,” he said.