Tiger Play at Private Zoo in Vietnam
DI AN, Vietnam A bespectacled man in a wide-brim hat slips his hand between the blue iron bars and casually ruffles the orange and black fur of a tiger's head.
At the private zoo of a self-described Vietnamese conservationist, other adult tigers prowl around an enclosure of grass and rocks, playfully paw at each other or snatch with their sharp teeth at live chickens being thrown to them for lunch.
The man, beer brewery owner Ngo Duy Tan, announced in August that he had successfully bred tiger cubs in his compound at Di An in the southern province of Binh Duong about 40 km north of Ho Chi Minh City.
The feat raised eyebrows among conservationists who say breeding in captivity is difficult for even some of the world's most advanced zoos, but Tan said it was the result of his love for one of the most endangered species in Vietnam.
"I wanted to send out a message to other nature lovers that I am doing my best to save the tigers because there are reports that there are only 150 left in Vietnam," said Tan, a former soldier who strides around his property in light-brown clothing and hat.
Tan said he also keeps about 1,000 crocodiles and more than a dozen Asiatic black bears, another endangered species.
While Tan says he is helping to save endangered animals, wild life experts and the government have targeted other private zoos because they illegally capture animals and hold them in cruel, unsafe conditions.
Forests and jungles in the poor, densely-populated Southeast Asian country of 83 million have been reduced by rapid economic development -- the perennial conflict between animals and humans played out elsewhere in Asia and in Africa.
Illegal trade in pelts, bones and body parts by poachers -- often to extract animal parts for medicines -- has also endangered many species in Vietnam such as the Indochinese sub-species of tiger bred by businessman Tan.
The enormous demand in Vietnam and other Asian countries to consume parts of exotic animals for culinary or medicinal purposes threatens species as different as soft-shell turtles and Asiatic black bears.
The bears are trapped in forests and then held captive to remove their bile for medicines.
"The ongoing demand for consumption of wildlife in Vietnam and China continues to result in unsustainable levels of harvesting, legal and illegal, of animal species," said Mark Infield of Flora and Fauna International (FFI) in Hanoi.
Indochinese tigers are solitary animals that need a lot of space and live food, conservationists say.
"They are a critically-endangered species and they belong in the wild but if you have to keep them in captivity, space is a big issue," said Tim Knight, spokesman for the conservation group Wildlife At Risk in Ho Chi Minh City.
"Some of the most famous zoos in the world still have difficulty breeding wild animals. If the animals do not feel comfortable, then breeding is the last thing on their minds."
Tiger-owner Tan keeps 19 orange and black-striped big cats in a 5,000 square metre area enclosed with blue bars, but filled with grass and rocks. They are fed live chickens and also pork.
"I don't know how other zoos breed tigers. For me, I try my best to create a habitat that is closest to natural conditions," said Tan, 55, whose love for tigers began while serving in Cambodia in the early 1970s.
During an interview, four cuddly-looking five-week old cubs pad around at people's feet and Tan strokes them and holds them as though they were any other domestic cats.
Tan said he has permission from provincial authorities to keep the tigers and he dreams of expanding their territory one day by buying more land around the compound.
He said he initially bought tigers in Cambodia several years ago and later bought six cubs at a Vietnamese market and raised them.
Vietnam has been a signatory to the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, since April 1994, but wild life groups have criticised the country for inconsistent enforcement.
They say there is a long list of endangered species in a country rich in biological treasures.
Among them is Vietnam's wild elephants.
Vietnam's Forestry Protection Department found that between 1999 and 2002 there were between 59 and 81 elephants in 11 locations compared with 122 to 148 elephants found in 20 locations from 1990 to 1995.
In mid-July, in the same province of Binh Duong where Tan keeps his tigers, Vietnamese forestry officials confiscated two orangutans from a small cage in a hotel.
The orangutans, which are protected by CITES, were smuggled from the Indonesian province of Kalimantan on Borneo and kept as an attraction for tourists at the Thanh Canh Hotel, conservation groups said.
They were returned to their home in the jungles of Borneo, four months after tourists reported their captivity.
Jakarta-based Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation said the hotel housed more than 200 animals, mostly Vietnamese wildlife.
"This illegal zoo (Thanh Canh Hotel) is one of many in the country and it is believed that for zoos around the country tens of thousands of animals have been illegally obtained from the forests of Vietnam and neighbouring Laos and Cambodia," it said.
(Additional reporting by Nguyen Nhat Lam and Nguyen Van Vinh)