By Kyla Crisp
Imagine seeing a flock of white birds flapping their way through the sky. On first thought, you might just assume they are some boring seagulls, especially if you are from the Pacific Northwest. Fortunately, the birds we saw at Tram Chim National Park were anything but ordinary. The diversity ranged from Egrets, Grey Herons, and Cormorants to Kingfishers and Purple Swamphens. However, the elusive symbol of the park, the Sarus Crane, was nowhere to be found. The park is a sanctuary for many of these species. Without protection, the biodiversity of the area will decline.
While boating through the tunnels of trees watching the birds fly overhead, I understood the meaning of the park’s name. The National Park is appropriately named after its two main inhabitants: Tram, which describes the constant Melaleuca forest, and Chim, the Vietnamese word for bird. Tram Chim National Park is a 7,588 hectare protected ecosystem with the goals of species conservation and wetland preservation. With 130 species of plants, 140 species of invertebrates, 90 species of fish and 130 species of birds, the amount of biodiversity is evident. Although the park is located inland, near the border with Cambodia, the park is strongly affected by the floodwaters of the Mekong River.
The park is divided into five separate management zones with dikes and sluice gates providing the equipment for water management in each section. Zone 1, the place we boated through, is focused on sustainable tourism. The other zones have the main goal of ecological restoration. Within the park, there is also a buffer zone, where residents from the surrounding area are able to use the natural resources.
As we were told by some of the park biologists, these individuals threaten the sustainability of the park as their population and use of resources grow each year. As we spiraled our way up a four story observation tower, the park boundary couldn’t have been clearer. To the left, all I could see was cookie-cutter catfish farms lined up against the horizon. To the right, however, the greener forests and grasslands of Tram Chim National Park were visible as far as I could see. Seeing this contrast, I could understand how important the park is to protecting the biodiversity of the area.
Our guide for the day was an avid bird watcher. Although it was 70 degrees and sunny, it is winter in Vietnam, and she led us on a quest to find the elusive Sarus Crane wearing her winter clothes and with bird identification book in hand. As the tallest of the flying birds, the Sarus Crane can grow up to a height of 1.8 meters.They live in Vietnam from January to May and spend the rest of their time in Cambodia where they breed with their long-time pair-bond. Unfortunately, the Sarus Crane is considered a vulnerable/threatened species. This is mainly due to the decrease in their food sources and an overall decline in their world population. The park serves the purpose of protecting the few individuals that are left. Although eight individuals were seen in the park earlier that day, we were unsuccessful in finding them.
Tram Chim National Park is beginning to face some major challenges that will only get worse in the future. Climate change is only one aspect. Both sea level rise and changes in precipitation will lead to flooding in the park and throughout the Mekong Delta. Already, intensive water management is needed to remove water during the flooding season and add water during the dry season. Dams proposed upstream on the Mekong River present the greatest threat, decreasing water flow in the dry season, leading to increased drought and fire. Invasive plants present another great threat to the park’s biodiversity. Given these pressures, and with limited funding for research and conservation, Tram Chim National Park might struggle with species conservation in the future.
Compared to some of the other national parks we visited, Tram Chim actually had other tourists in addition to us. They had a total of 61,000 last year, which is a lot given the challenge necessary to reach the park. The park saw nearly a 150% increase in visitation over the last year, likely due to its declaration as a RAMSAR wetland of international importance. Obviously people want to see the biodiversity of the park and I am glad we endured the long bus and ferry rides in order to reach it.