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

Evading Extinction

January 11, 2012

Story By Maggie Matchett

After hours on a bus on roads so bumpy that a sip out of my wide-mouthed Nalgene was a challenge, we all stepped out into U Minh Thuong National Park, with high hopes to see some wildlife, in a country where street rats and geckos run rampant, but seeing other mammals or birds is rare.

U Minh Thuong is one of the last areas of peatswamp forest remaining in Vietnam and recognized as one of the top three highest priority sites to conserve in the Mekong Delta. Peat is an important for the storage of carbon, and the peat extends a full one to three meters into the soil.

We were greeted by a smile and a man eager to share of the park’s biodiversity and success story of nurturing endangered bird populations back to health. U Minh Thuong is home to 243 plant species, 32 mammal species, 188 bird species, 52 reptile species and 60 fish species. Ten of these animals are Red Book species, which means they are listed as endangered and have a high priority for conservation. Some of these rare animals include the hairy-nosed otter, Sunda pangolin, large-spotted civet and gray-headed fish eagle.

The park boasts the highest bird diversity in all of Vietnam, which we immediately saw upon entering the park and seeing two painted storks, one of the Red Book species. Not being able to help but act like tourists, we excitedly crowded around, snapping photos of the majestic birds eating fish. Another important bird species in the park is spot-billed pelican, which went from a population of nine in 2002 when the park was established to now having 41 individuals.

I couldn’t help but grin as I watched how excited the presenter was to tell us of the conservation efforts of the community and it got me thinking about the ramifications of establishing a national park in a country where every square foot of land is so valuable, both for biodiversity and livelihood production.

The park is divided into zones including the core zone, where tourists are not allowed and conservation efforts are high, and the buffer zone, where families that lived in the area before the park was established were allocated four hectares of land and are able to use resources from that land, with some restrictions. There is a limit to the number of fish each person can harvest and they are not allowed to use pesticides and insecticides. Had this park not been established and managed efficiently, resources would be exploited and diminished and precious biodiversity would have been lost.

Even more than habitat loss, another threat to biodiversity and the existence of Red Book species is poaching and black market trade. As Vietnam’s economy grows with its development and industrialization, so does the demand for rare and valuable furs and meat—at the expense of endangered animals. Populations of cobras, pangolins, rhinos and long-tailed monkeys have dwindled due to a desire to flaunt a newfound wealth. As in many developing countries, poaching is difficult to regulate in Vietnam.

It is great to see such gusto in the conservation efforts and recognition in the importance of biodiversity in a low-income country with little land to spare. As long as national parks like U Minh Truong continue to preserve important lands like this peatswamp, pelicans will continue to thrive and pangolins will evade extinction.

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