HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Vietnam has abandoned plans to evict a rescue center for bears from a national park, a move that follows pleas from western governments, U.S. senators and international celebrities to save the facility.
Animals Asia Foundation, the Hong Kong-based animal welfare group running the center, had waged a public relations and social media campaign around the planned eviction that garnered it international attention.
"Our priority has been to rehabilitate these bears after their years of trauma from being locked up in small cages and milked for their bile," Jill Robinson, the group's founder and CEO, said in a statement Wednesday. "If we had been forced to relocate it would have had a terrible impact on their wellbeing."
The $2 million center, which sits inside a national park 70 kilometers (43 miles) north of the capital Hanoi, is home to 104 bears rescued from Asia's bear bile trade. Bear bile is used in some traditional remedies in the region. The sanctuary has been in the park since 2005.
In July, Vietnam's military ordered the center to relocate citing vague national security concerns, but Animals Asia and others suspected business interests were behind the eviction order. The daughter of the park's director, Do Dinh Tien, is one of four shareholders in a planned ecotourism project there. In September 2011 Tien asked the agriculture ministry to approve that project and two others. But Tien denies he has ever planned to evict the bears.
Prime Minister Dung said in a statement late Tuesday that the center can stay and continue with a planned expansion, and that Tien will be "severely dealt with" if violations are discovered.
Animals Asia says there are about 2,400 bears living on bile farms in Vietnam, and more than 10,000 in neighboring China.
In November, 10 conservation groups, several foreign embassies and U.S. politicians wrote to Prime Minister Dung urging him to not close the center. Seven Democratic U.S. representatives said in their letter that the military's national-security claim was "questionable."
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 late last year.
Conservationists said the planned eviction was an example of how development pressures often trump conservation agendas in Vietnam, which has less than 1 percent of the world's land but about 10 percent 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.