Sheltered from harm

Thirty national parks dot Vietnam and provide a sanctuary for its flora and fauna.

By DON WILLS on March 07,2018 09:41 AM

Sheltered from harm

Photos: VIET TUAN, KIM CUONG, NGUYEN TIN & MINH HAI

The poet William Wordsworth was one of the first to come up with the concept of setting aside selected areas of a country as national parks. In 1810 he proposed the idea of establishing ‘a national property, in which every man who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy has a right to explore’. Like so many great ideas, Wordsworth’s took a long time to catch on. It was not until 1948 that the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) was formed in Fontainebleau, France, with the official objective of ‘conserving wild nature for posterity and a symbol of national pride’.

Few people would dispute the need for national parks. Twenty-five per cent of the world’s mammal species are at risk of extinction, with Asian primates particularly in danger, according to a comprehensive global survey released in 2008. Countless species of flora, wildlife, birdlife and marine creatures are in decline. The two major threats to these species are the shrinkage of their traditional habitats and the irresponsible or illegal activities of humans. And the one major hope of eliminating those threats is the establishment of national parks and reserves, where not only mammals but creatures and plants of all species can exist free from human interference.

Vietnam has no fewer than 30 national parks, covering more than 10,000 sq km. President Ho Chi Minh was a firm believer in protecting the environment. At the opening of the country’s first national park in 1963 he said: ‘Forests are like gold. If we know how to preserve them well, they will become national treasures’. His words have unquestionably been taken to heart and acted upon in Vietnam.

Sheltered from harm

The first and largest national park in Vietnam is Cuc Phuong. Established in 1962, Cuc Phuong is the oldest national park in Vietnam. Located only 120km southwest of Hanoi and nestled between the provinces of Ninh Binh, Hoa Binh and Thanh Hoa, Cuc Phuong boasts an engaging cultural and wildlife heritage and enchanting scenery. Covered in a dense forest, this landscape forms the habitat for some of Asia's rarest animal and plant species. It is no wonder that researchers, naturalists, enthusiasts and conservationists alike are drawn to this corner of the world.Its primeval forest is home to over 2,234 vascular and non-vascular plants, 122 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 135 species of mammals, including the Clouded Leopard, Delacour's Langur, Owston's Civet and the Asian Black Bear. There are also an incredible 336 documented bird species. In its caves the remains of prehistoric man, seven to twelve thousand years old, have been discovered. Cuc Phuong not only provides a sanctuary for wildlife but is also active in rescuing and rehabilitating threatened animals. Its Endangered Primate Rescue Centre has 140 primates, including gibbons (long-armed fruit-eating apes), langurs (long-tailed tree-dwelling monkeys), and lorises (smaller, slow-moving nocturnal primates with huge eyes). The Turtle Conservation Centre, meanwhile, is home to 100 turtles engaged in a breeding program. Most were confiscated from smugglers bent on either selling them to restaurants or to Chinese importers.

Sheltered from harm

Amid the beauty of Halong Bay is Cat Ba National Park on Cat Ba Island. This craggy, forest-covered island looks like a cross between ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Jurassic Park’. On the island are 32 species of mammals, including langurs, macaques, wild boar, giant black squirrels and civets, and more than 70 species of birdlife. The golden-headed langur, one of the world’s 25 most endangered primates, can be found here. Only less than 70 of these animals remain on this earth, and most of them are on Cat Ba. Its 1,000-plus species of plants include the Kim Giao tree, notable because emperors and nobles of the past would only eat with chopsticks made from its wood, as the light-colour turns black when it comes in contact with poison. Tourists can visit a remote minority village at Viet Hai using a shuttle boat from Cat Ba town.

Sheltered from harm

Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park, 150 km northwest of Dong Hoi city in the central region, is the oldest limestone karst area in Asia, formed 400 million years ago. A large number of fauna and floral species are found within the park, with over 800 vertebrate species comprising 154 mammals, 117 reptiles, 58 amphibians, 314 birds and 170 fish. It has 300 caves stretching a total of 80 km. Phong Nha Cave is the largest wet cave in the world. A carefully monitored number of visitors can explore 4.5 km of it. They traverse the first 500 metres by kayak, then make their way over enormous boulders, through narrow passageways and among stalactites and stalagmites to a subterranean river that is alternately swum and waded, and thence to ‘the dark zone’, a pitch-black area inhabited by blind fish, bats and insects. One scene in the movie ‘Kong: Skull Island’ was filmed in Phong Nha Cave.

Sheltered from harm

The Con Dao islands are generally agreed to be the most beautiful in Vietnam, something the islands’ former inhabitants were unable to appreciate; they were political prisoners and undesirables incarcerated there in the prison colony established by the French. In spite of their grim past, the islands of Con Dao are one of Vietnam’s most popular national parks. They can be reached by daily flights from HCMC or by overnight boats from Vung Tau. Many tourists visit Bay Canh Island to see the sea turtle nesting grounds. The return of the green sea turtles is the conservation success story of the decade. The turtles were aggressively poached for their meat or the value of their shells in the past, but thanks to the efforts of the WWF and Con Dao rangers they are now breeding prolifically without fear of human predators.

Sheltered from harm

Cat Tien National Park in Dong Nai province, 150 km north of HCMC, is also dedicated to the conservation of wildlife. This is a truly international undertaking. The Endangered Asian Species Trust (EAST), the French Global Environment Fund (FGEF), the Vietnam-Russian Tropical Centre (VRTC), and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) are all engaged in helping Vietnam in Cat Tien’s conservation efforts.

 

Sheltered from harm

 

The Wildlife at Risk bear reserve provides a sanctuary for moon bears and sun bears and the Carnivore and Pangolin Conservation Program is busy rehabilitating and releasing Sunda pangolins snatched from the hands of poachers. The released pangolins are tagged with radio transmitters in order to give scientists a better understanding of the creatures’ migratory habits. Also in the park are 450 species of butterflies. Ta Lai village on the southern edge of the park is home to three ethnic minority groups. Visitors can access it by bicycle or river boat, and will find basic homestays where they can enjoy traditional meals and be entertained by weekly music and dance performances.

It is often said that Vietnam has been spoiled by Mother Nature. A visit to one of its 30 national parks will confirm this ‘to every man who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy’.

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