Nature’s resilience is nowhere better seen than in this tiny war-ravaged country, pocked with 20 million bomb craters, sprayed with dioxin and chemical defoliants that denuded millions of forest acres—yet still home to spectacular wildlife. Tigers, leopards, Asian elephants, and Malayan sun bears prowl regrown jungles. Dazzling birds—some species known only here—sip at blossoming vines, and discoveries continue of animals previously unknown or long thought extinct.
The saola, originally called Vu Quang ox—first new mammal species reported in the world in 50 years, like a small ox with a deer’s graceful manner and daggerlike horns that could fend off a tiger—was discovered in the VU QUANG NATURE RESERVE on the Laotian border in 1992. In 1993 a new kind of barking deer—the giant muntjac—was found nearby, discoveries which led to a logging ban and expansion of that reserve to protect these and perhaps other rare species to science.
Until 1988 Javan rhinoceros were thought to exist only in west Java’s UJUNG KULON NATIONAL PARK (see p.604); then some were found in woods close to and including NAM CAT TIEN NATIONAL PARK. Another species thought extinct until recently was the lovelycrimson-faced white-crested Vietnamese pheasant. The world’s last troupes of golden-headed langurs are on Cat Ba Island’s national park. Eastern sarus cranes of the Mekong Delta disappeared during the war; then in 1985 a farmer reported a single bird. Now more than 500 pairs of these world’s tallest flying birds with red heads, gray plumage, and reddish legs nest in a reserve set aside for them on these former battlefields in Dong Thap province, and over 200 other species have come as well—among them Chinese pond herons, black-headed cranes, white-throated kingfishers, and buff-throated warblers.
Environmental consciousness has arisen as destructive results became clear not only from wartime devastation but also overfishing, slash-and-burn farming, and unsustainable forest use for charcoal and firewood as well as timber. In 1992 unprocessed timber exports were banned. Government reforestation projects were undertaken and encouraged in schools as well. As a result, the Forest Ministry points out that forest coverage, down to 20 percent in the early 1990s, rose to 28 percent by 1998. In 1993 the country’s first law on environmental protection was passed at the behest of Ho Chi Minh City citizens aroused by failure to stop golf course construction in protected Tu Duc National Park.
Plans have been announced to create 100 national parks and reserves covering about five percent of the land area. More than 40 have been officially approved with more, they say, to come. Funds fall short of adequate staffing and protection, but it is a beginning.
It cannot happen too soon for Vietnam’s some-273 mammal species along with over 850 kinds of birds, 260 kinds of reptiles and amphibians, and hundreds of fish, along with an estimated12,000 plants—7,000 so far officially described and 2,300 already known for important uses in food and medicines.
At least 54 mammal and 60 bird species are listed as threatened. Tapirs and Sumatran rhinoceros are believed already extinct, and there are thought to be fewer than 10 koupreys, dark, lyre-horned forest oxen, Other species of special concern still hanging on include remarkable variegated douc langur monkeys, serows—bearded, maned mountain goats—and huge gaur, wild cattle that can weigh a ton (1,000 kg) or more.
Encouragingly, wildlife has returned to restored places. Replanted mangrove swamps again nurture birds, fish, and crustaceans, and areas once devastated by war have become biologically diverse “hot spots.”
Much poaching and habitat destruction continues unchecked, however, with little effective restriction on sale of endangered animals’ parts such as tiger skins and plundering of dwindling coral reefs for tourist souvenirs. Markets not uncommonly sell monkeys, snakes, turtles, and various bird species—even bears—for collectors or the cooking pot. Coastal mangroves in the Mekong Delta are cleared for commercial shrimp ponds. Even protected areas still suffer from agricultural encroachment and excessive firewood-gathering.
Still, those interested in wild creatures and wild places will find impressive examples of both here.
Major international airlines fly directly to Vietnam, although North American visitors at least until recently have had to connect via Hong Kong, Japan, or Taiwan. In-country travel can be problematic with under-maintained roads and often overbooked local airlines with poor safety records. Accommodations are improving and most national parks have inexpensive basic overnight facilities. Travelers in remote areas should use caution. Best bet can be to hire an experienced driver-guide and consult local authorities on recent conditions.
Best times in the north are less rainy November–April; elsewhere conditions vary.
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