by Minh Thu
(VNS) Many children love teddy bears and consider them their closest friends. So it's easy to understand why children are excited to visit live bears.
Hands on: Children can join many activities at the centre, such as helping to prepare food for the bears. This involves putting peanuts, sunflower seeds and fruits into a bamboo tube.
|Playtime: There are more than 100 bears at the centre, and many of them have been rescued from bile farms. — VNS Photos Minh Thu
My children shouted with joy when they got out of the car to see many black bears playing, swimming and sunbathing in their gardens. One day at the Bear Rescue Centre helps children learn much more than visiting a zoo, and is much more enjoyable.
The centre is located at Chat Dau Valley in the northern province of Vinh Phuc's Tam Dao National Park, about an hour and a half by car from Ha Noi.
The sanctuary for bears was built in 2007, funded by Animals Asia Foundation (AAF), an international non-governmental organisation founded in 1998. The main objective of the project is to rescue 200-250 bears from the torture of bear bile farms. At the sanctuary, rescued bears can live out their lives in peace and safety.
"We have 101 resident bears at the sanctuary at the moment. We have rescued 109 bears, but eight have passed away," said Tran Thi Thu Thuy, from the AAF.
The centre is open to the public, offering people a chance to see the bears and get to know more about them.
"The Bear Education Centre also helps raise awareness of the conservation and welfare needs of bears," she said. "It will hopefully help to reduce the demand and market for bear bile and the overall practice of keeping bears for economic purposes."
"We have an education facility onsite to introduce all aspects of bear conservation and welfare, as well as to explain the background of bear bile use and available herbal and synthetic alternatives."
Walking along pretty Bac Stream, between the trees of Tam Dao National Park, visitors go to the bears' houses and gardens. It's fun to see them going to the garden to play, climbing trees, sleeping under the wooden frame and sunbathing on fine days. The children seemed to never tire of watching the rescued bears and listening to stories about them.
While we walked, Pham Thi Huong, our tour guide and the centre's educational officer, talked about the situation of the bears before they had been rescued.
She told us how the bears were rescued from bile farms, and how the injured bears got on well with each other and the environment of the centre suited them well.
"Now, most of them have gained weight, and are naughty and curious," Huong said. "When we came to rescue them, several bears were injured so seriously that they lost an eye or a leg. Now the disabled bears have integrated with their friends."
"Moon bears (Himalayan black bears) love water and like nothing more than swimming and splashing around," Huong said. "Moon bears, along with Malayan sun bears, are the only bears known to construct feeding platforms in trees."
Ngo Ngoc Anh, 8, asked curiously where the honey was and whether bears really loved honey as much as they did in cartoons.
|New life: The centre at Tam Dao National Park lets visitors see the injuries and diseases bears suffer after years of being kept in farms for bile extraction.
"It's no myth! Bears really do love honey and are able to smell it from up to 5km away," Huong said, "but we don't feed bears honey because it harms their teeth."
"For children, we mostly focus on introducing them to the bears. For example, we teach them about the main characteristics of the moon bear and sun bear such as what they like to do, their favourite foods and the differences between them," she said. "If children learn to love the bears, they can change their parents or grandparents' minds and over time, hopefully people will understand the bear issue and refuse to use bear bile."
The staff sometimes organise special activities to let children experience the real work of caring for the bears.
Anh and her friends were really excited to put peanuts, sunflower seeds and fruits into a bamboo tube and bring them to the bears.
"Huong told us that the bears would play with the bamboo tubes, then discover the food inside them. This helps them recover their natural skills," Anh said. "We learned many things about the bears' habits."
For researchers, environmentalists or those studying the environment or animals, visiting the quarantine area could be a good experience. There, one can see the vet team carry out their work: checking bears' health, planning their diets and preparing their food.
And most importantly, visitors can see with their own eyes the diseases that the bears suffer after years of being kept in farms for bile extraction. Some bears have missing paws or even entire missing limbs, some are blind, and some have severely damaged gallbladders resulting from bile extraction at bear bile farms.
"We have a plan, in collaboration with the Viet Nam Traditional Medicine Association, to build a herbal alternative garden so that people can find more information about the plants they could use to replace bear bile," Thuy from the AFF said.
"When visitors finish their day with the bears, they can visit the souvenir shop where we sell various items such as T-shirts, scarves, bags, caps, cards, paper fans, USBs, key chains and pens with images of bears and calls to protect them."
Both parents and children can have a meaningful yet relaxing day, visiting bears and learning about them. The one-day tour is now open for free, with the hope that the more people come, the more bear welfare will improve. — VNS