Vietnam’s Wildlife: A (Pretty) Good News Story

Red-shanked doucs on Son Tra, Vietnam. Photo: Martin Walsh

In 2019, The New York Times published a compelling article entitled, Vietnam’s Empty Forests. In it, Stephen Nash wrote eloquently about the challenges facing nature in Vietnam, its wildlife’s mind-blowing biodiversity, and the struggle to halt what he refers to as animal genocide.

However, a two-week holiday is not enough to assess Vietnam’s ecological war. Vietnam’s Empty Forests paints a picture of a country sliding into a bleak, barren future, on the strength of a few brief visits to national parks. This ignores the country’s successes and the real progress that has been made in the last decade.

A man herds his ducks in Ninh Binh, an area of limestone karst that is crucial for the critically endangered Delacour’s langur. Photo: Martin Walsh

Vietnam is a vast country, 1,600 kilometres of impressively varied tropical terrain separating Saigon and Hanoi. That’s over half of the distance between London and Istanbul. It features 34 national parks and a further 50 nature reserves and protected forests. These protected spaces run the gamut between Kent H. Redford’s empty forest syndrome and forests teeming with life. The success stories are hard-won. Vietnam’s people and forests had to rebound from devastating wars, first against the French and then against the United States. Carpet bombing and extensive defoliants used by the U.S. destroyed huge swathes of primary forest and doubtless wiped out much of Vietnam’s megafauna.

Since then, Vietnam has been rapidly modernizing. One of the poorest countries in the world in 1975, it now boasts an annual economic growth that would make any country other than China swoon. Somehow, in 2020, an apocalyptic hellscape of a year, Vietnam managed a GDP growth of 1.6%. But an economic and population boom has come at a cost. Primary forests have dwindled, poaching has become more sophisticated, and pollution levels have shot up.

Clouds of butterflies

Admittedly, significant damage has occurred. Cuc Phuong, Vietnam’s oldest national park, is a glorious landscape of jagged karst and ancient trees. Each year after the monsoon, clouds of butterflies pool on the roads and trails, exploding in riots of color as you walk past. Cuc Phuong escaped U.S. bombing, sparing a priceless tract of primary forest. The forest feels primordial: Creaking, moss-covered trees sway above you, impossibly wound vines hang from the forest canopy and snake their way up limestone cliff faces. Plant and insect life is incredibly diverse, with manifold shapes and patterns. But the forest is quiet.

A butterfly pool takes off in Cuc Phuong. Photo: Martin Walsh

Members of the Muong ethnic group have called Cuc Phuong home for generations and have a long tradition of hunting in the forest. Many Muong were relocated when Cuc Phuong became a national park in 1962, but old habits die hard. The relocated villagers still know how to enter the park, and ruthlessly efficient traps have emptied the forest of mammals and birds. The Cuc Phuong rescue centres are excellent, but as Nash noted, they fear re-releasing mammals into the park. However, this doesn’t mean their charges are doomed to a life in captivity. A guide in Cuc Phuong explained that rehabilitated animals, fit for reintroduction, are released into safer parks. Animals are usually released into Pu Mat in Nghe An (350km south of Hanoi) or in Cat Tien, just a couple of hours north of Saigon.

The Kiem Lam, Vietnam’s forest rangers

The work of the Kiem Lam, Vietnam’s forest rangers, to safeguard the country’s remaining wild spaces is crucial. They work in remote locations, far from their families. This is by design. Rangers are posted away from their communities to ensure that there is no conflict of interest with friends, families, or neighbors. They get limited time off and earn salaries starting at four million VND per month, just a couple of hundred dollars. Nash rightfully points out that the low pay can cause problems: After all, wildlife crime is a much more lucrative profession. But those who exploit their positions are punished accordingly.

A forest ranger takes a break from searching for pygmy slow loris in Cat Tien. Photo: Martin Walsh

Anecdotal evidence isn’t data, but my experience with the Kiem Lam leads me to believe that corruption is not the norm. I’ve spent vast amounts of time in Vietnamese national parks, often staying with the rangers. The low pay is selective in its own way. Rangers have not picked their career for the wage. They are invested in the parks and in the wildlife. They are knowledgeable and excited to share their sightings, photos, and findings. I’ve been shown stunning photos of mist-shrouded dawns over Cat Tien’s grasslands and excitedly led to a particular rock to look for a grass lizard only discovered in 2008. They are rightfully proud of Vietnam’s biological diversity.

A blue-winged leafbird. Photo: Martin Walsh

The last rhino

Vietnam’s success stories support my gut feeling. For every Cuc Phuong, there’s a Cat Tien. Cat Tien should be regarded as a remarkable success. Instead, it is often associated with its greatest failure, the loss of Vietnam’s last wild rhino in 2010. The Dong Nai region saw intense fighting during the war and is heavily populated, but Cat Tien has rebuilt itself admirably.

This sweaty chunk of forest is geographically fortunate: The Dong Nai River has protected it somewhat from logging and hunting. But it is a concerted effort by the government, forest rangers, and international charities that have brought Cat Tien back from the brink. 

The park still features a rhino on its logo, a reminder of what can be lost. In the decade since that tragedy, the park has stabilized and can point to significant successes. Most notable is their work with primates. Vietnam is home to 24 primate species, and six of them can be found in Cat Tien. Primates are flourishing here thanks to better protection, as well as reintroductions by the park rescue centre and the Endangered Asian Species Trust (EAST). The park is so full of primates that re-releases are having to be rehomed further and further into the west of the park to find empty territories.

A black-shanked douc stops for a snack in Cat Tien. Photo: Martin Walsh

Pig-tailed macaques, yellow-cheeked gibbons, and 190 other species

The forest echoes with the haunting call of yellow-cheeked gibbons in the morning and quiet visitors should spot at least one species of primate if they take a long enough walk. On a recent trip, I stopped on a forest trail after hearing the unmistakable alarm call of a macaque. Sure enough, a troop of pig-tailed macaques sprinted across the trail in front of me. As I tried to find an angle to grab a photo, I came face to face with a black-shanked douc. The douc disappeared in a flurry of long-limbed swings, only to lead my camera to a yellow-cheeked gibbon casually checking me out from the upper reaches of the canopy. Three endangered primate species in the space of a minute. It was gloriously surreal.

But Cat Tien has more than just primates. In 2020 alone, I saw 190 different species there. Disconcertingly tiny ruby-eyed pit vipers, hulking wild bovines called Gaur, palm civets, Siamese crocodiles, critically endangered land snails (thought to be extinct until 2012), and a resplendent array of birds — from hornbills, adjutant storks, and serpent eagles to broadbills, pittas, and kingfishers. It is the polar opposite of Nash’s brief experience of an “empty forest”.

The park director, Phạm Hồng Lượng, told me that several large species have increased in number over the last decade, correlating with a significant drop in wildlife crime within the park. In 2011, there were 329 violations; in 2020, just 95. There have been no recent criminal cases involving the forest rangers.

Gaur are an ancient descendent of modern cattle. Photo: Martin Walsh

Many other national parks boast successes too. Bach Ma Mountain towers 1,500m above the coast of central Vietnam, wreathed in cloud and carpeted with dense forest. The French built a holiday resort on the mountain to take advantage of the cool weather. Their ruined villas still dot the slopes around Bach Ma peak. During the Vietnam war, U.S. and ARVN troops used the mountain as a base.

The red-shanked douc

Now a national park, Bach Ma is home to the world’s most beautiful primate, the red-shanked douc. As recently as 2009, these incredible langurs were in retreat, with as few as 39 left in the park. An ethereal presence in the cloud-covered forests, they were rarely seen. When I visited in December 2020, I bumped into a family group five minutes after dumping my backpack down on my bed. I saw at least two different family groups over three days in the park, and the rangers believe that the Bach Ma population now numbers at least 90 individuals.

A red-shanked douc cleaning its tail in Bach Ma. Photo: Martin Walsh

Off the southern tip of Vietnam, the Con Dao archipelago is a popular pilgrimage site for the Vietnamese, as well as a picture-perfect island getaway. Thankfully, development has been limited so far. Almost 20,000 hectares are protected by the national park services. 

Turtle comeback

Con Dao is vital for turtles. From May to October, they emerge onto Con Dao’s beaches to lay their eggs. Due to indiscriminate fishing practices, beach developments, and hunting, turtles are in decline worldwide. On Con Dao, rangers patrol the beaches to ward off poachers and to monitor the locations of nesting sites. Rangers mark off where eggs are buried so that they can return in the morning to move the eggs to protected nursery areas.

This serves two purposes. It makes protecting the eggs much easier and it allows them to perfectly manage the gender balance of the hatchlings. Green sea turtle eggs will develop as females if the eggs are in direct sunlight and as males if they are buried in a shaded area. Here too, progress has been made. The government has cracked down on poaching, with big fines and jail terms for those caught trading in illegal wildlife.

A smattering of elephants

Back on the mainland, Vietnam faces an uphill struggle to save its last remaining wild elephants. In the 1990s, the country still had as many as 2,000 pachyderms. Now, fewer than 150 remain. Rapid development and a booming human population are to blame. The Vietnam Administration of Forestry estimates that from 2008 to 2014, Vietnam’s central highlands (an area that should be perfect elephant habitat) lost 358,700 hectares of forest.

In Cat Tien, an electric fence has been set up to keep wild elephants out of local villages. Photo: Martin Walsh

Vietnam has been slow to act but is now devoting significant resources to their protection. In Quang Nam, an Elephant Habitat and Species Conservation Area has been established. Rangers patrol the forest and spend an average of 15 days per month in the jungle.

The government is also working hard to minimize elephant-human conflicts. This involves educating the local population about how to deal with elephant incursions into their farmland, and expanding the conservation area to ensure that elephants have sufficient food within the forest. It is already paying dividends. A calf was born last year, and there is hope that the small wild herd can expand. In Cat Tien too, a herd has hung on. In 2020, the Cat Tien herd produced two calves and is believed to number 21 elephants.

These successes show what can be achieved, but more work is needed. Vietnam remains a conduit for the illegal wildlife trade. Local consumption of protected species (for both food and traditional medicine) is still an issue, and supplying a seemingly insatiable Chinese market is hugely lucrative for those willing to take the risk. Increased awareness of zoonotic diseases in light of the COVID pandemic could encourage the government to further clamp down on the legal and illegal wildlife trade.

There have been some promising developments. In July 2020, the government introduced a new directive to “stop the import of wild animals, whether alive or dead” and to “resolutely eliminate marketplaces and places for illegal trade of wild animals; To strictly control and handle acts of illegal hunting, catching, trading in, transporting wild animals.”

A grumpy brown fish owl. Photo: Martin Walsh

Around the world, development has come at the expense of the environment, and Vietnam is no exception. Vietnam’s biodiversity is under siege, but there is reason to hope. The country has made significant strides in the last decade, and there are some fantastic places to observe unique wildlife found nowhere else. Eco-tourism could be an important factor in maintaining and improving protections for Vietnam’s last wild spaces; the perception that there is nothing left is unhelpful and untrue. Vietnam’s biodiversity battle is far from over, and empty forest syndrome can still be averted.

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About the Author

Martin Walsh

Martin Walsh

Martin Walsh is a freelance writer and wildlife photographer based in Da Lat, Vietnam.

A history graduate from the University of Nottingham, Martin's career arc is something of a smörgåsbord. A largely unsuccessful basketball coach in Zimbabwe and the Indian Himalaya, a reluctant business lobbyist in London, and an interior design project manager in Saigon.

He has been fortunate enough to see some of the world. Highlights include tracking tigers on foot in Nepal, white-water rafting the Nile, bumbling his way from London to Istanbul on a bicycle, feeding wild hyenas with his face in Ethiopia, and accidentally interviewing Hezbollah in Lebanon.

His areas of expertise include adventure travel, hiking, wildlife, and half-forgotten early 2000s indie-rock bands.

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