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Halong Bay bears head home.....

Such a blissful evening, gliding along Halong Bay on a "sunset cruise" — and pinching ourselves as we enjoyed the beautiful views across the sea, the natural limestone rock formations towering out of the water, and graceful seabirds circling on the air currents above. All this, while bringing home two more rescued farmed bears.

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The cruise boat was, in fact, a hired fishing boat, but couldn't have been more perfect for ending both a challenging and satisfying day. The boat was capable of carrying up to ten tonnes - and more than sturdy enough to cope with bears Sam and Simon, now gently sleeping in their new recovery cages.

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Every so often Sam lifted her head to look right and left at the views around her, and her nose twitched as she sniffed the clean and salty breeze. Having been second to receive his health check, Simon was more groggy, but seemed completely relaxed as the boat rocked and kept him gently asleep.

Up until that morning they had been the last two bears on Ba Mun Island, caged in a dark and stinking room since September 2011. Originally confiscated at Halong Bay in 2005 as cubs, they'd been under the care of the local Forest Protection Department who had the intention of building a rescue centre on Ba Mun Island. However, once on the island, the rescue centre never materialised and the two bears lived in cages until permission was given to set them free.

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With the worldwide outcry for the Halong Bay bears, the decision came from the Prime Minister of Vietnam to rescue all of the bears in Quang Ninh province and hand them into our care. And now, with the help and assistance of the Quang Ninh FPD and Ba Tu Long National Park and Rescue Station staff, these two bears were finally being prepared for their release from the dark.

We arrived at Van Don late on Monday afternoon, with a good omen of blue skies and sunshine, and looking forward to the rescue the next day. Having enjoyed a quick dinner, and turning in for an early night, most of us were awakened a few hours later by thunder, lightning and torrential rain, that continued into the next morning. At 8am, dark skies overhead and the electricity going off in the street did not bode well for the rescue — and especially with the news from the Harbour Master on the quay that the Port Authorities were not letting anyone sail.

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Perhaps the Bear God was looking kindly on us that day as, within a few hours, the weather had cleared and we were on our way to Ba Mun to finally meet Sam and Simon. Both bears had been named after someone we never had the pleasure of meeting — US animal lover and philanthropist Sam Simon, who had generously helped our campaign. Sam and I had exchanged emails, and chatted on his radio show, together with Mikko, our long standing friend and supporter, and we'd arranged to meet just a few weeks later in the USA. Just days before I arrived in LA, Sam Simon tragically passed away.

Looking at Sam and Simon now, it was hard not to let our emotions overwhelm us, as we witnessed the legacy of years of bear bile farming present itself in their broken bodies. Sam — while at least not too bad in body and coat condition — was somewhat stereotypic, pacing to and fro in abject frustration from her years in a cage.

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Simon, on the other hand, was a mess — and I think we all wept inside witnessing how those weeks, months and years of confinement had led to such inconceivable pain. Vet Joost felt certain that Simon had suffered a neurological disorder as he stumbled clumsily about in his cage, often crashing helplessly to the floor as he missed his footing and fell. His front left limb hung limply by his side, he had open pressure wounds on his back from lying on hard steel bars, and his left eye was also clearly damaged.

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Simon's health check saw another stunned silence as the damage to his teeth was revealed. According to Joost, several of his molars were hanging on by a thread — the gums degraded, the roots rotten, and the stench of decay and disease. Joost gently removed a couple of the worst teeth allowing Simon's mouth to be less painful when he woke from the anaesthetic — and, with his overgrown nails trimmed, bloods taken, and copious notes made in preparation for a full health check soon, Simon was carried out to join Sam, now waking up on the boat.

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The carrying itself was one of the most challenging parts of the rescue as, to get to the boat, the team were forced to carry the sleeping bears in tarpaulins and negotiate precipitous concrete stairs almost vertically leading down to the sea.  I needn't have worried — as clearly they'd all taken lessons from mountain goats, nimbly and capably carrying Sam and Simon to safety and in to their waiting recovery cages on the boat.

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The trip back was magical — never have we experienced scenery like it on the way home from a bear bile farm and, within a couple of hours, we were pulling in to the port.

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With hearts in mouths we watched as our experienced bear team led by Dao Chau Tuan and the driver of a crane took over the job of lifting both cages from the boat on to the waiting truck. The pictures said it all, as the cages were silhouetted high in the sky, and I don't think any of us took a breath until the bears were safely on solid ground.

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The final journey the next morning back to Tam Dao was uneventful, unless you count the fact that we left our Senior Content Manager, Douglas, in the forecourt at the hotel (where he'd been taking pictures of the leaving convoy), and had to send a car back to pick him up!

Back at our sanctuary in Tam Dao, there was a wonderful welcome for our two new family members, as Bear and Vet Team Director, Annemarie, and team were waiting with a smorgasbord of fruit for Sam and Simon to enjoy their homecoming meal.

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The last task of the trip saw big bear hugs all round, just to make our fearless Vietnam Director Tuan Bendixsen, squirm. Tuan has led a truly incredible campaign for the release of the Halong Bay bears and, like the "Stop the Eviction" campaign in the past, never, ever gave up on this mission. Now working on the release of the remaining 36 bears in the whole province, following the Prime Minister’s decision, Tuan can hopefully sleep more peacefully at night in the knowledge that they'll be home very soon.

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Meanwhile, for those of you who remember brain damaged Rupert in China (who sadly passed away in 2010), you'll know the meaning when I say that I like to think of Simon as a bit “Ruperty”. Like Rupert, I hope that we can help Simon recover to enjoy a good quality of life and, if tucking into his food with gusto is an indication of what's to come, he's already doing well. He and Sam are also enjoying never-ending enrichment of toys and banana leaves — and of course boundless tender loving care.

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With endless thanks to THE most amazing Vietnam team: Tuan B, Joost, Julie, Weng, Dao Chau Tuan, Toan, Trinh, Ngoc, The, Douglas, photographer Peter Yuen on the rescue — and Steve streaming the pics and updates on — and Mr. Vinh and the three hired drivers who carried their passengers safely home. To Annemarie and all in Tam Dao who prepared and welcomed, and did so much more — thank you all for releasing these bears from their hell.

To supporters and friends who never stopped sending the most fantastic messages on Facebook and Twitter — thank you so, so much from us all. They were read with smiles at the end of weary nights, with gratitude for your faith and never-ending encouragement throughout the trip.

 And to conclude this rescue: the rusted padlock cut from Simon's cage — a reminder that our job will never end until every bear is free.

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