In May 2015, Animals Asia launched one of their most daring rescues yet, transporting two bears from a remote island off North-East Vietnam, back to the mainland and off to their new home, the Vietnam Bear Rescue Centre at Tam Dao National Park.
I was able to help Animals Asia on this rescue again only thanks to the amazing supporters on my Patreon page, who make all this possible.
Thirty-eight bears are set to be rescued in the region by Animals Asia in the coming months. And today is two of these bears' lucky day.
Ba Mun Island is an hour away from our port, near Halong Bay in Vietnam.
We woke early and were greeted with dark skies and heavy rain. No boats were going out that morning, let alone for such a delicate mission as ours and the team was eager to get those bears: the weather could slow them down, but never stop them. The delay could be an hour or a day, and only Mother Nature could decide. Remaining ready for anything as always, the team waited out the rain and discussed contingency plans.
Luckily it was a few hours before the rain stopped and we took our window of opportunity. As the time for high tide back at port in the evening was an important factor, it meant that the delay would not set the team back too far; they had all day on the island.
The boat journey felt tense, with no-one knowing the exact conditions of what we would face when we arrived, or if the weather would turn again as predicted by the forecasts. Unable to do anything until we got to the island, and having beaten one literal storm already, the team sat preparing and discussing the possibilities in the calm before the figurative storm that lay ahead.
Before we had even docked, the team began solving their first problem. As the driver called out and the island started getting bigger in our view, we saw that the docks were very high with very steep steps down to the boat. Difficult for a person to manage, much harder for 4 people trying to safely carry a bear. Without a solution that was safe for both humans and bears, they wouldn't go ahead.
After a few options were discussed, the team decided on the safest way: wait until the highest tide to decrease the distance to carry the bears and make sure that the entire support team were on hand. The bear would be passed down the steps secured in a gurney, with ropes supporting all of the above, and the boat, taking no chances.
The facility was a thankfully short and steady path from the pier, easy to traverse for those carrying the bears on their first step home. When we reached the bear house, the vet team began their initial assessment and the prep work for the health checks that are needed before they could be safely transferred.
The two bears, female and male, were nicknamed named Sam and Simon respectively, after the late Sam Simon, co-creator of the Simpsons and animal rights activist. Sam was alert and slightly stressed. Stereotyping in her cage, she swung her head back and forth repeatedly. Simon meanwhile was quieter and slower. He was in much poorer condition and immediately captured the hearts of everyone on the scene. As Sam was the strongest and what would hopefully be the least risky, her health check was done first.
With the help of the Vietnamese government, the health checks began, and Sam was freed from the cage in which she had spent the past 5 years. The vet team went to work, and while Sam would undergo more thorough examination when she is at the sanctuary, there are no immediate problems with her and they prepare her for the boat.
Simon's health check was a more sensitive procedure. He wasn't aggressive or scared of the team as they went about their business and even when they took Sam away for her health check. He just looked back at us, and turned around in his cage again and again, occasionally falling down onto the bars, his balance poor and his legs not strong enough to hold him.
Simon's trusting nature meant that the whole team were fond of him, and despite the stress and pain he was in before his cage was opened, we saw glimmers of what a handsome bear he will be when his new life begins.
Simon was fragile and great care was taken by the vet team to make sure he was ok as his anaesthetic took hold. He had open wounds, hair loss and his joints and paws were in bad condition but again the team were happy not to find any immediate issues.
Loaded onto the boat with his good friend Sam, they were observed by the vet team as they woke up, while the rest of the team prepared the boat and packed away the huge amount of equipment and supplies needed for the rescue operation.
The journey back to dry land was much more peaceful than the morning's trip to the island. The bears were both waking up and probably wondering what had happened to them. The waters and the skies were calm and the team were reflecting on the long day that was mostly behind them.
Tourists pay a lot of money for a beautiful sunset cruise around Halong Bay, but this trip was even more special for Sam and Simon.
What a few seconds before was keeping Simon in his cage, rusted shut for 5 years, instantly becomes a symbol of his past. What about Simon's future?
Animals Asia wasted no time starting the bears' new lives. The moment they are moved into quarantine they are given food, bedding and enrichment to keep them entertained until they can be moved to an outside area.
Like its sister-sanctuary in China, the Vietnam Bear Rescue Centre is a serene place where bears are allowed to be bears. What awaits Sam and Simon is a life of peace, quiet, care and bear friends, but with 36 more bears planned to be rescued, Animals Asia needs to build a new bear house at the VBRC.
To donate and help build these bears a new home, visit www.animalsasia.org
You can pledge as little as $1 a month to help support my work: www.patreon.com/peteryuenphotography