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No answer on destruction in Plain of Reeds

(No.6, Vol.2, June 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)



I contacted Le Hoang Long, Chief of the Science Research and Environment Department of Tràm Chim National Park, and he said, ‘You should ask the park’s Director for permission before I can answer your questions.’ I called the park’s Director, Nguyen Van Hung, immediately, but he declined to answer.
The locals said poaching was frequent and many locals went into the forest to smoke bees out of their hives in order to get honey or use electric pulses to kill fish. Many fires have badly damaged the carpet of plants in the forest. In the dry season of 2007, 13 fires in Tràm Chim Forest were reported in newspapers. In the dry season of 2010, the Lao Động newspaper said, ‘In only two days, three fires happened in Tràm Chim National Park, clearing 200 ha.’



Golden snails, Pomacea sp., and the pest plant mimosa pigra have also done a lot of harm to Tràm Chim National Park. According to the Plant Protection Department of Vietnam, the golden snails originated from South America and were brought to Vietnam in 1986. They began their rapid growth and have been harmful to many kinds of plants. Dr Hoang Van Thang, working at the Natural Resources and Environment Research Centre of Hanoi National University, said, ‘The number of golden snails has increased a lot in Tràm Chim.’ The Director of the Wetland Research Centre, Dr Tran Triet, said in Tuổi Trẻ newspaper of 12 June, 2004, ‘A dominant growth of an exotic species like the golden snail will have a lot of harmful domino effects on the wetland ecosystem of Tràm Chim National Park. Grass areas with plants like Oryza rufipogon, Ischaemum indicum, Eleocharis bulbs and Leersia hexandra are great places for the golden snails to feed. The golden snails compete fiercely with the local freshwater snails, making the latter reduce a lot in number of species’. Mimosa pigra is classified by the Global Plant Protection Organization as among the 100 exotic species with the most harmful invasive effects in the world.



It has attacked Tràm Chim National Park. According to Đồng Tháp newspaper, Mimosa pigra took hold in Tràm Chim in 1985 and by 2002 it had covered 1,000 ha. Many local and international researchers and Đồng Tháp authorities held a workshop to find a measure to kill the plant but by 2005 the Mimosa pigra had invaded more than 2,000 ha of the park. Dr Thang said, ‘Now, I don’t know for sure how much the Mimosa pigra has invaded Tràm Chim. I only know that it is growing thickly in several parts of the forest.’ While visiting recently, I also noticed a lot of Mimosa pigra in Tràm Chim. It was luxuriant on the banks of the canals and on the meadows. Dr Thang said, ‘Unless effective measures are taken to kill the Mimosa pigra, other plants and animals will hardly survive. For example, sarus cranes do not come to where the Mimosa pigra grows.’
In February, 2012, Tràm Chim National Park, in Dong Thap Province, in the Mekong Delta, was designated a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, which embodies the commitments of member countries to conservation of designated wetlands. According to the website of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, Tràm Chim National Park ‘is one of the last remnants of the Plain of Reeds [Đồng Tháp Mười] wetland ecosystem, which previously covered some 700,000 ha of the Mekong Delta in southwestern Vietnam. Ramsar says, ‘The site is one of the very few places in the region where Brownbeard Rice (Oryza rufipogon) communities survive. The wetland supports nine bird and five fish species that are globally threatened, including the critically endangered Bengal Florican, Houbaropsis bengalensis and the Giant Barb, Catlocarpio siamensis. The site regularly supports more than 20,000 waterbirds in the dry season, and more than one per cent of population of six waterbird species, especially the Eastern Sarus Crane, Grus antigone sharpii.’
My visit to the park was made with a friend in late March, 2012, by motorcycle. We did not come for the sarus cranes. We were attracted by stories in books about the Mekong Delta and the mystique of the Plain of Reeds. From Saigon, we rode along National Road 1A. When we were about 1km from the well-known My Thuan Suspension Bridge, we turned right into the National Road 30 and rode for 36km to reach Cao Lãnh, the capital of Đồng Tháp Province. From Cao Lãnh, we continued on National Road 30 for another 25km to Thanh Binh T-Junction and turned right and went along the road for 16km before arriving in Tràm Chim Townlet, where there are more than ten cheap guesthouses. After a night there for VND70,000, we left the guesthouse at 8.30 a.m. to go to Tràm Chim National Park about 1km away. A receptionist at the park told us that we had to hire a boat. It was a Sunday, so it was crowded and we had to wait until 10 a.m. before we could hire a boat. We two and eight other visitors each paid VND100,000 to hire a 12-seat motored boat to go on a 36km, three-hour tour. At 10.15 a.m., a tourist guide called Mien delivered lifejackets to everyone before we started, but nobody put them on, although the canal was eight metres deep. The 20-metre-wide canal is straight and looks like a giant string of a musical instrument. On our left-hand-side was a huge field of rice and on our right-hand-side Tràm Chim Park.
Tràm Chim Park is a wetland with several huge spots of wild grass among the bigger trees. It looked like the coat of a spotted dog. Mien said, loudly, to drown the noise from the engine, ‘To make it convenient for management, people dug canals in and around Tràm Chim and divided the forest into areas marked differently.’ Mien said, ‘The water in the forest changes according to seasons. In the dry season, the water is about 40-50 cm deep and it is 1m-1.2 m deep in the flooding season.’ At a large area of wild grass, we saw thousands of big grey birds. Then, we came to an area full of lotus, whose leaves are as big as elephant ears. There were thousands of red and white lotus flowers. A girl said, ‘Lotus flowers are the most beautiful in the Plain of Reeds area. It is absolutely true.’ In the canal, hyacinth and duckweed were floating everywhere on the water surface. Above the green plants were Sesbania sesban, whose yellow flowers are eaten as a vegetable by the locals. Thousands of white herons were searching for food in a sparsely-grown cajuput area.
After more than 30 minutes, the boat turned right and stopped at a 20-metre-tall observation tower. Mien said, ‘Scientists often do research here because there is a variety of plants and sarus cranes often come for food.’ Climbing about 50 steps of the stairs at the observation tower, we came to its top floor, which had room for 20 people. Mien gave us binoculars. Looking in the southern and eastern directions, I saw the forest was made up of areas of grass running as far as the eye could see. It seemed a hundred or two hundred big birds were at each such area of grass looking for food or flying around it. In the western and north-western directions, we saw a large area of rice which had been harvested; farther away was a village. Most of the people in our group regretted that we couldn’t see any sarus cranes. The boat moved further into the forest. Thousands of birds – perhaps they heard the noise from the engine on the boat – flew away and cried noisily. Yet stubborn or lazy birds just stayed in the trees looking at us. After going for about 2km, the boat stopped at Area A1 with an observation station like the other one. There was also a wooden stilt house for the rangers and one restroom for the tourists. Our helmsman said a lot of sarus cranes often came there, but we did not see any.
After resting for 30 minutes, we continued our trip along the canal in the middle of the forest. After going for about 300 metres, we saw a flock of about 100 birds. The helmsman said, ‘These are painted storks. They are also one of the rare species. They each weigh almost 10kg, stand more than 1m and their wingspan measures 1.5 metres’. On the way back, we at times saw flocks of pretty big birds like cormorants.


The Plain of Reeds includes this waterway, a canal, along which visitors can explore the plain. The picture was taken on that part of the plain that is within the Tram Chim National Park.

Photo: Dang Khoa

I asked, ‘This is the time of year when sarus cranes come to Tràm Chim National Park in largest numbers, but why don’t we see any?’ The helmsman said, ‘So far this year, about thirty or forty of them have come and only a few at a time, so it is hard to see any.’ On 9 April, 2012, the Tràm Chim National Park Management was quoted by Đồng Tháp newspaper as saying that about 40 sarus cranes had come to Tràm Chim this year. That was a big decline on previous years.
Dr Hoang Van Thang said, ‘In 1988 more than 1,050 sarus cranes came to Tràm Chim but in 2011 only about 100 came.’ According to Dr Thang, the cause of the serious decrease in numbers of sarus cranes has been the reduced or damaged area of eleocharis [spikesedge] bulbs, the main food for the sarus cranes. Also, taking too many tourists to the forest has
affected the life of the sarus cranes. A regular visitor to the park who asked to remain anonymous said, ‘People have even built a big house in Area A1 in the middle of the park to hold parties. They have also granted licences to allow people to go fishing in the forest. The locals usually have their cattle graze in Area A5. At times, I could see thousands of buffaloes and cows there. Such busy activities must have driven the sarus cranes away.’ Dr Thang said, ‘Unless efforts are made by the local authorities, the forest management, scientists and the locals, very soon sarus cranes will never be found there.’ Lots of newspaper articles have been published saying Tràm Chim, as a home to the sarus crane, has had its space, carpet of plants and wetland species damaged.
Photographer Minh Loc, who has spent more than a decade taking thousands of photos of sarus cranes in Tràm Chim, said, ‘Last year, I went for photos of sarus cranes and it turned out I got a collection of photos of buffalos. In a few years’ time, they [sarus cranes] will probably not be seen in Tràm Chim.’
Box:
Tràm Chim National Park is in Tam Nông District of the Mekong Delta province of Đồng Tháp. It is 220km west of Ho Chi Minh City. According to the Tràm Chim National Park Management, the park is in an area of 7,313ha. The park is in the middle of and is a remnant of the Plain of Reeds region [Đồng Tháp Mười]. The park has 231 bird species (of which 32 species are rare), 130 local plants, 130 freshwater fish species, 174 species of floating plants, 110 species of floating animals, 23 species of animals living at the bottom of the water; also, there are amphibian species and reptiles.
People interested in visiting can contact the Park Management at (067) 3827 436 or (067) 3827 081,
Email: tramchimtamnong@yahoo.com
Services listed at the Park Management Office include: 3 kinds of boats (4-seat, 8-seat and 12-seat) for from VND300,000-VND1,000,000. Rooms, each with four single beds, fans, a TV, a fridge are VND150,000 per night. Air-conditioned rooms each with three single beds, a TV, a fridge cost VND200,000 per night.




By Dang Khoa
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