Vietnam's first bear rescue center was inaugurated Monday, offering refuge to bears rescued from farms that raise the animals for the illegal sale of bear meat and bile.
The first four bears taken by the center — endangered Asiatic black bears, also known as Moon bears — were rescued seven months ago by police who found the animals in the luggage compartment of a bus en route from the northern mountainous province of Dien Bien Phu to Hanoi.
Most of Vietnam's dwindling bear population is being held in farms across the country.
"It is really a tragedy," said Jill Robinson of Animals Asia Foundation, which opened the bear rescue center. "The bears are kept in disgusting conditions."
Located in the northern hill town of Tam Dao, the 30-acre bear rescue facility is still under construction. It will have outdoor gardens and space for up to 200 bears when it is completed in 2009.
While it is legal to raise bears in Vietnam, the law forbids the sale of bear meat and bile, both of which are sold in a thriving black market. Many Vietnamese believe bear bile has medicinal benefits, and bear meat is served in underground restaurants.
Bear farmers often extract the bitter green bile from the bears' gall bladders with syringes, then sell it to customers who usually drink it mixed with a shot of rice wine, believing it cures eye, liver and other ailments.
Ending illegal bear farming is difficult because the use of bear bile is a deeply rooted tradition, said Nguyen Van Cuong, deputy director of Vietnam's Forest Protection Department.
The center sends an important message about animal protection to the Vietnamese people, said Robinson.
"Ultimately these rescued bears will show the world that this barbaric industry has no place in modern society," she said.