Endangered bears find refuge in new Vietnam center
By Grant McCool
TAM DAO, Vietnam (Reuters) - A furry black bear cub playfully clasps a rubber pet toy between its paws and eats fruit in its new home -- Vietnam's first refuge for bears rescued from abusive traffickers of bile used in traditional medicines.
The bear is one of four 50 kg (110 lb) endangered Asiatic black cubs and two adults that were smuggled either from neighboring Laos or from southern Vietnam in the past seven months, and confiscated by the authorities.
They are now under the care of forestry authorities and international wildlife veterinarians at the Vietnam Bear Rescue Center in Tam Dao National Park, 70km (44 miles) north of Hanoi, which will eventually house 100 bears.
"It reaches across to people, acknowledging that we should be protecting bears for their own sake rather than how they can be benefiting humankind," said Jill Robinson, founder of Animals Asia Foundation, a Hong Kong-based animal welfare charity that is funding the bear rescue center.
"I think that's a very good message that we don't need bears today in traditional Chinese medicine," she said at Monday's opening of a quarantine area for bears, the first phase of the project in the green, forested hills of the park. "There are lots of herbal alternatives and synthetic alternatives too."
It is illegal in Vietnam to extract the bile from bears or to advertise the trade, yet authorities and wildlife groups estimate more than 4,000 "Moon Bears" as they are known for the white crescent mark on their chest, are caged and mistreated in farms across the country.
Tam Dao National Park director Do Dinh Tien said the new center has a role in trying to influence a cultural change in the Southeast Asian country, where wild animals are hunted and animal parts are still widely used in traditional medicines.
"This is a kind of model to educate all people so that they will not abuse the wildlife," said Tien, who noted that illegal deforestation and hunting had reduced the number of wildlife in his country, which has a long list of endangered species.
"It can be a tool to raise awareness about the laws and to enforce them effectively," Tien said.
Communist-run Vietnam has been a signatory to the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, since 1994, but wildlife groups have criticized the country for inconsistent enforcement. (Additional reporting by Nguyen Van Vinh; Editing by Valerie Lee)