(dpa) - Vietnam, a country with a large underground trade in farming bears for bile and meat, has opened its first bear rescue centre, an official said Tuesday.
Tam Dao Bear Rescue Centre, the first of its kind in Southeast Asia, covers an area of 12 hectares in mountainous Tam Dao National Park, 60 kilometers north of Hanoi, according to the park's director, Do Dinh Tien.
The park cost about 625,000 dollars to build. The funds were provided by the nonprofit Hong Kong-based Animals Asia Foundation, along with Vietnam's Forest Protection Department and Tam Dao National Park.
"Bears seized from smugglers or from illegal farms will be treated in an isolated area and then released to a semi-wild area in the centre, before ultimately being released to their original wild habitats," Tien said.
The centre opened Monday and is caring for four Asian black bears. Park officials say it will eventually be capable of lodging up to 400 bears at the same time.
"There are now more than 4,430 bears being illegally raised for bile or for meat at household farms throughout Vietnam," Tien said.
In Vietnam's Chinese-influenced traditional medical culture, bear bile is believed to be able to heal a variety of diseases. Steamed bear feet is a favorite delicacy among elite Vietnamese.
While selling bear bile has been illegal since the mid-1990s, the practice remains widespread. The bile is openly advertised on street signs and occasionally in newspapers.