Animals Asia Foundation saves Vietnam Bear Rescue Centre and halts Zimbabwe/China baby elephant deal––in same week

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  January/February 2013:

HONG KONG,  HANOI,  HARARE––The Animals Asia Foundation on January 16,  2013 won a six-month battle against the ordered eviction of the Vietnam Bear Rescue Centre from the edge of Tam Dao National Park,  Vietnam––and just three days later won the cancellation of a controversial sale of baby elephants from Zimbabwe to China.

“This is a week we will all never forget,”  assessed Animals Asia Foundation founder Jill Robinson.

Six years into developing the Vietnam Bear Rescue Centre,  to rehabilitate and provide sanctuary to bears rescued from bear bile farms and smugglers,  the Animals Asia Foundation in April 2011 came under pressure to vacate the property from Tam Dao National Park director Do Dinh Tien.  Tien’s daughter was among the four shareholders in the Truong Giang Tam Dao Joint Stock Company,  which planned to redevelop the site as a “bear rescue and breeding center” open to the public,  adjacent to a hotel and other tourist accommodations and attractions.

“In September 2011 Tien asked the agriculture ministry to approve the project,”  recalled Mike Ives of Associated Press.  The Animals Asia Foundation was ordered to stop making site improvements,  but remained unwilling to abandon $2 million worth of facilities to become,  in effect,  a roadside zoo.

On July 9,  2012 the Animals Asia Foundation received an eviction notice.  Supposedly the site had become critically important to the Ministry of Defense.  Animals Asia Vietnam country director Tuan Bendixsen was told at an October 5, 2012 meeting with representatives of various ministries that the bear sanctuary would have to go.  But Robinson fought back with an international publicity campaign.

The October 2012 edition of ANIMAL PEOPLE helped to expose the confrontation––and exposed some of Do Dinh Tien’s other dealings,  too.  One was use of the Tam Dao Botanic Garden to produce “mainly plants of economic importance such as medicinals,  fruit trees,  fodder,  food and fiber plants,”  as described by a report submitted by the garden management to Botanic Gardens Conservation International.  Do Dinh Tien was also involved in the Vietnam Carbon Exchange,  a scheme to sell conservation credits to Australian companies whose industrial processes produce greenhouse gases.  The idea was to sell credit to the companies for helping to protect the trees already growing in Tam Dao National Park,  which is already protected habitat,  without actually planting any new forest to increase the global carbon absorption capacity.

“Tien denies he ever planned to evict the bears,”  reported Ives of Associated Press,  as word leaked out that the the Animals Asia Foundation had won.  “Prime Minister Dung said that the center can stay and continue with a planned expansion,  and that Tien will be ‘severely dealt with’ if violations are discovered.”

In November 2012,  Ives continued,  “Ten conservation groups,  several foreign embassies,  and seven Democratic U.S. representatives wrote to Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung urging him to not close the center.  British comedians Stephen Fry and Ricky Gervais regularly tweeted to their millions of followers about the planned eviction.  American actress Ali MacGraw visited the center.  Conservationists said the planned eviction was an example of how development pressures often trump conservation agendas in Vietnam, which has less than 1% of the world’s land but about 10% of its species.

Vietnam’s poor enforcement of environmental laws is adding to international criticism of its ruling Communist Party,  which faces scrutiny over its human rights record and its management of a faltering economy.”

Confirmed Animals Asia Foundation spokesperson Stuart Lennon,  “A communiqué issued by the Vietnamese government confirms that Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has concluded that the rescue center should be maintained, and that construction on the project’s second phase should continue.  This decision ensures that the 104 bears living at the center will stay,  and 77 local Vietnamese staff keep their jobs.”

“We are very grateful to the prime minister,”  said Tuan Bendixsen,  Vietnam director for the Animals Asia Foundation.

“Our priority,”  said Robinson,  “has been to rehabilitate these bears after their years of trauma from being locked up in small cages and milked for their bile.  If we had been forced to relocate it would have had a terrible impact on their well-being.”

Robinson thanked “tens of thousands of supporters from around the world who wrote letters,  sent e-mails and signed petitions calling for the eviction to be stopped,”  including supporters “within Vietnam,”  contributing to “the combination of internal and international lobbying,  with sensitive footsteps whenever required,”  which “finally saw justice prevail.”

Robinson estimates that there are still about 2,400 bears on bile farms in Vietnam,  and more than 10,000 on bile farms in China,  North Korea,  South Korea,  and Laos.

Elephants The Animals Asia Foundation and the world learned about the export of baby elephants from Zimbabwe to China on December 18,  2012 from Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force chair Johnny Rodrigues.

“We have received a very disturbing report,”  Rodrigues posted,  “that on November 25,  2012,  four elephants were transported by road from Hwange to Harare Airport,  a trip that took 12 hours,  where they were loaded onto an Air Emirates aeroplane and flown to Dubai.  This flight took 10 hours.  From Dubai,  they were allegedly flown to Bejing.  The total weight of the elephants was 3.9 tons,  which implies they were very young.  The fact that these elephants are juveniles indicates that they were taken away from their mothers,  and family units are therefore being destroyed.

“It is further reported,”  Rodrigues continued,  “that another 14 elephants are being held in a boma in Hwange, awaiting exportation in January 2013.”

Animals Asia Foundation volunteers confirmed to Rodrigues that “Two of the elephants went to the Taiyuan Zoo, one of whom subsequently died.  The other two reportedly went to the Xinjiang Tianshan Safari Park.”

The Animals Asia Foundation volunteers obtained and posted around the world photos of the surviving elephant at the Taiyuan Zoo.

“We are saddened and disgusted that these elephants have been removed from their mothers and the African bush to live alone in a cold unfriendly jail cell in a foreign country,”  Rodrigues posted.  We believe the temperature at the Xinjiang Tianshan Safari Park is less than 20 degrees Celsius below zero.  It is highly unlikely the elephants will survive in the cold when they have been accustomed to temperatures of between 30 and 40 degrees.  There are apparently still another 14 elephants waiting to be exported and we have to try and stop this from happening.”

As protest erupted on the web,  Animals Asia Foundation United Kingdom director Dave Neale on January 19,  2013 pronounced himself “thrilled to say that our campaign to prevent wild-caught elephant calves being sent to Chinese zoos has been successful.  The remaining five calves in Zimbabwe have today been sent to the Umfurudzi national park,” Neale said,  “where they will be rehabilitated for a life in the wild,  instead of experiencing a life of misery in a Chinese zoo safari park.”

But “We still have three wild-caught calves languishing in miserable conditions in the Taiyuan zoo and the Xinjiang Safari Parl,”  Neale reminded,  “plus our Zimbabwe partners have let me know of  many more deals being brokered among Chinese,  U.S.,  and French zoos to bring wild-caught African elephant calves into their collections.  The war on the trade in wild-caught animals for zoos is likely to be long,”  Neale warned.

Meanwhile,  Neale said,  he and Humane Society International representative Peter Li “are corresponding with the China Association of Zoological Gardens to provide advice and support to hopefully improve the lives of the three calves already in China.”

The Zimbabwe National SPCA on January 21,  2013 affirmed to Associated Press that the elephant calves still in Zimbabwe would undergo “rehabilitation and integration with existing elephant herds,”  since “the babies’ real mothers could not be traced.”

The Zimbabwe National SPCA hoped that “The capture of wild animals for zoos or similar habitats,  irrespective of location,”  will be stopped.

U.S. zoo demand

The mention that U.S. zoos might want to import wild-caught elephants from Zimbabwe came six weeks after Seattle Times staff reporter Michael J. Berens disclosed after an analysis of 390 elephant deaths that have occurred since 1962 at American Zoo Association-accredited zoos that,  “For every elephant born in a zoo,  on average two die.  At that rate, the 288 elephants inside 78 U.S. zoos could be ‘demographically extinct’ within the next 50 years because there will be too few fertile females left to breed, according to zoo industry research.” Twenty-two AZA zoos that formerly exhibited elephants no longer have any.

“Of the 321 elephant deaths for which the Seattle Times had complete records,”  Berens wrote,  “half were by age 23, more than a quarter of a century before their expected life spans of 50 to 60 years.  Most of the elephants died from injury or disease linked to conditions of their captivity,  from chronic foot problems caused by standing on hard surfaces to musculoskeletal disorders from inactivity caused by being penned or chained for days and weeks at a time.”

AZA zoos “have pinned their hopes for crowd-pleasing new elephants on artificial insemination,”  Berens continued. “But success has been spotty,  with miscarriages and premature and stillborn deaths reaching 54%.  Of 27 artificial-insemination pregnancies since 1999, eight resulted in miscarriages or stillborn deaths, documents show.  An additional six calves died from disease, including from the herpes virus.

“Simply to sustain the elephant population,  accredited U.S. zoos need to acquire 10 new female elephants each year,  according to modeling by scientists,”  Berens explained. “Only three elephants were born in 2012 inside U.S. zoos. Eight died.”

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