Students and professors from the University of Montana learn about how people are dealing with life and livelihoods under dynamic conditions

Diversity in Distress

January 14, 2011

Story By Bryan Zimmerman

Photos By Kevin Radley

Lizards scattered and scurried away in all directions as I opened the dormitory door. The hot, heavy air hits the face like a knockout punch and sweat immediately begins seeping out of every pore on your body. The sun is so intense it feels like it’s perched on your shoulders, following you everywhere you go. If it got any hotter it seems like all of Tram Chim National Park and every living thing within it would combust.

Upon getting in the boat to start our excursion into a system of swamps, grasslands and crossing canals, it was evident that the preserve’s 7,600 hectares were more than just a tourist destination.

Driving around Vietnam it’s hard not to notice the lack of wildlife. Every mammalian species seen is certainly not wild in any sense of the word but domesticated and physically restrained. Being from Montana it is such a contrast from what we are used to as we often have wildlife in our backyards. Aside from the geckos roaming our hotels the only biological diversity we saw was in strictly protected areas such as Tram Chim National Park.

These national parks and biosphere reserves house several endangered species and are key for their survival into the future. They also are examples of sustainable ecosystems that farmers could benefit from.

Vietnamese livelihoods are threatened from a combination of historic canalization, a changing climate and rising sea levels. Previous agricultural land uses have acidified the soil, which will only be escalated, as the dry season gets drier and the wet season wetter. With limited resources, most impoverished farmers will continue to unsustainably exploit natural resources for a source of income.

Farmers in Vietnam should incorporate management practices that emphasize biological diversity. During our one-day outing in the park, I observed 10 different species of fish and 19 species of birds without putting in much effort to do so. With an emphasis on increasing the number of species involved in their agricultural practices, farmers will not have to rely on a static monoculture system.

The disparity between the inside of the park and the rest of Vietnam was astounding. It is like having a wildlife sanctuary in the middle of Los Angeles, you don’t see any wild animals until you step into the reserve and then suddenly they are everywhere. I couldn’t help but wonder about the future of these places and all the things that reside in them.

Reserving land for biodiversity in Vietnam is already a publicly contentious issue and many of these areas are having problems with poachers. Farmers who have lost their land and have no other skill sets are being forced to harvest animals and trees within the parks for food and supplies. Many species that were strongholds for food for many families have not been seen in years, but people still need to eat.

Now they have shifted the pressure on to other species, and consequently they are now in decline. This effect will only cascade unless a serious effort is made to restore at least some of the wildlands. National parks and other protected areas are a great start, but other attempts, such as education, must be improved so that someday we once again may see a wild Vietnam.

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