For years environmentalists have battled official corruption, ignorance and a plain lack of interest in a brave attempt to stem wildlife trafficking and save what's left of Southeast Asia's endangered species.
Successes have been rare and too often defined by government promises to crack down, boost surveillance and enforce laws, promises that have been largely ignored.
There have, however, been exceptions. Among the most notable was a project in Vietnam to rescue bears from the barbaric practice of bile farming, where a catheter or a needle is inserted into their bile duct and the bile harvested to meet demand from the widely discredited Chinese medicinal market.
It was a landmark project constructed by Animals Asia on six hectares of land in Vinh Phuc province in the Red River Delta region of northern Vietnam, where 104 rescued bears were given a home and some creature comforts after spending up to 30 years in captivity.
CAN’T BEAR IT: Tam Dao National Park, a sanctuary for bears, is under threat allegedly due to the development plans of the park’s directory.
"The bears are being rehabilitated after years of trauma from being locked up in small cages and milked for their bile," said Stuart Lennon, a spokesman for Animals Asia.
Now they are being evicted.
"This will have a major negative impact on their mental and physical well-being. It is likely to take at least two years to establish a new centre with outdoor enclosures," he said. "These bears will be forced to return to cages to be relocated."
Animals Asia _ a charity that is devoted to ending bear bile farming practices and improving the welfare of animals in China and Vietnam _ has alleged "an aggressive campaign" had been undertaken by the director of the Tam Dao National Park, Do Dinh Tien.
It says he deliberately spread misinformation _ in an attempt to block construction of the third outdoor bear enclosure _ saying that waste pollution from the rescue centre was damaging the environment and the health of the local community. "He requested that the Ministry of Agriculture close down the rescue centre and relocate the bears. Following an exhaustive investigation by the Vinh Phuc environmental department, the bear centre was cleared of all allegations."
Mr Lennon said Mr Tien, undeterred, had then lobbied Vietnam's Defence Ministry to have the area declared of "national defence significance".
"The park director has been pressuring Animals Asia to relinquish six hectares of land since April 2011. It is believed that he intends to hand the land over to the Truong Giang Tam Dao Joint Stock Company, in which his daughter has an investment," Mr Lennon said. "The company has submitted an application for development of an eco-tourism park and hotels."
Mr Tien was not immediately available for comment.
Land grabbing and corruption is fast becoming a major social issue across Vietnam and Southeast Asia, and a source of illegal protests which has unnerved the authorities in Hanoi.
Recently a group of former Viet Cong soldiers marched to Ho Chi Minh City, carrying a bust of Ho Chi Minh, to protest their eviction from land granted to them for fighting alongside the North Vietnamese communists during the Vietnam War.
Anger over land grabs and corruption was nearing a fever pitch earlier this month _ when Animals Asia was handed its marching orders _ amid speculation the Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung could be ousted during a meeting of the Communist Party's all-important Central Committee because of his links to corrupt businessman and collapsed state owned enterprises.
That meeting lasted a marathon two weeks, twice as long as usual, and Mr Dung did hang on to his job. However, the Communist Party also acknowledged that corruption within its ranks was a problem.
Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos have also faced unprecedented international criticism for their inability to tackle the illegal wildlife trade. In July, the WWF singled out Vietnam as among the worst countries in the world for the illicit trade in animal parts, in particular rhino horn, amid rumours that it has healing and aphrodisiac properties.
Bear bile is used for treating pain, fever, gall stones, inflammation and bad vision, although scientists say herbal and synthetic alternatives are also available.
So accepted is the practice that Guizhentang Pharmaceutical _ a Chinese firm that sells bile extracted from the gall bladders of moon bears _ was included on a list issued by the China Securities Regulatory Commission last year of companies seeking to make an initial public offering (IPO).
The IPO was eventually withdrawn but only after animal rights activists highlighted the treatment by the company of 470 bears.
More than 10,000 bears _ mainly moon bears which are also known as the Asiatic black bear, but also Malayan sun bears and brown bears _ are kept on bile farms in China. A further 2,400 are held captive in Vietnam where they are milked for their bile, which is stored in the gall bladder.
In a rearguard action against their eviction, Animals Asia has enlisted celebrity support. British comedians and actors Ricky Gervais and Stephen Fry are sponsoring bears, narrating documentaries and drumming up support through social media networks.
Animals Asia is also directly appealing to the prime minister to intervene and overturn the eviction order issued by the Agricultural Ministry on Oct 5. But Mr Lennon said that due to the powerful status of Vietnam's Defence Ministry and the decision it made to re-zone the land, it was feared that the prime minister would be forced to agree with the recommendation to close the centre.
"The claim that the land in question is an area of national defence significance is questionable, given that the centre has been in operation since 2005 and that the Chat Dau Valley, where it is located, has been used for tourism and other private purposes since the park opened in 1996," he said.
Mr Lennon also said the eviction was in direct violation of a 2005 agreement struck between the Vietnamese government and Animals Asia to fund and develop the facility on 12 hectares of the Tam Dao National Park to permanently rehabilitate and house 200 rescued bears.
"Based on this agreement, Animals Asia has invested more than US$2 million [61.4 million baht] in building and infrastructure," he said, adding the closure would also see 77 local Vietnamese staff made redundant, while Animals Asia would incur losses of more than $2 million.
"The local economy that depends on the centre would be severely impacted, and the Vietnamese government's commitment to ending bear bile farming would be called into question," he said.
To date the Vietnamese government has been unresponsive. But if Hanoi is serious about dealing with the issue of land grabbing and cleaning up its reputation as a haven for the international and often illegal wildlife trade, then the prime minister might consider testing his powers against his country's all powerful Defence Ministry.
About the author
Writer: Luke Hunt