13.11.2011 - 18.12.2011
The wildlife of Indochina (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) is fascinating. This region lies at the crossroads between the Indian, Chinese and Sundaic ecological zones, and the fauna and flora is likewise transitional. There are representatives from all three neighbouring regions, plus some rare endemics (species unique to Indochina) with mysterious names. Ever heard of a kouprey? How about a saola?
Sadly, much of this incredible biodiversity is in peril. The all-too-familiar causes are poaching and habitat loss, driven by uncontrolled development in Vietnam and the sinister black market in trafficking animals to China. As if that weren't bad enough, dam construction on the Mekong River threatens to disrupt the ecology of the most important natural waterway in Southeast Asia.
In Cuc Phuong National Park, a few hours' drive from Hanoi, we visited two conservation facilities which are fighting a losing battle to save species on the road to extinction. The Endangered Primate Rescue Center takes in monkeys and gibbons saved from the illegal wildlife trade, studies and breeds them in captivity and rehabilitates them for release back to the wild. The neighbouring Turtle Conservation Center does the equivalent for freshwater turtles, a prized delicacy on Chinese dinner tables. Both centres have collections of astonishingly rare animals, so valuable that they're targeted by the traffickers, and round-the-clock security is required.
Our tour of the primate centre was conducted by an impatient local guide, and was unfortunately over in 20 minutes. In that time we (very briefly) saw some of the world's rarest monkeys – Francois' langurs, Cat Ba langurs, black-, grey- and red-shanked douc langurs and gibbons. There's nothing pretty about the cage enclosures, but there is a two-hectare "semi-wild" enclosure (currently occupied by a group of Delacour's langurs) which is the monkeys' final home before release back to the wild.
The turtle tour was much better, thanks to our effervescent German volunteer guide. (Both centres are part-funded by Frankfurt Zoological Society, an example of the valuable contribution zoos can make to wildlife conservation.) We learned that there are just four known living specimens of the Swinhoe's soft-shelled turtle (a giant freshwater species weighing up to 200kg) left in the world. One lives in Hoan Kiem Lake in the middle of Hanoi and is revered by the locals. A Chinese zoo houses a breeding pair but they are producing infertile eggs. A fourth individual was recently caught in a reservoir in central Vietnam. Conservationists raced to the scene and persuaded the jubilant fisherman to release it, which was no mean feat as it was worth a minor fortune to him. Thanks to an intensive education programme, local villages now jealously guard "their" turtle. It may all be in vain as the only realistic prognosis for this species is extinction.
For some creatures, it's already too late. After we left the UK in September, it was reported that the last Javan rhino in Vietnam had been shot by poachers. A tiny population of rhinos clings on in a single Javanese national park. There are unconfirmed reports that Sumatran rhinos (the world's next rarest species) still inhabit Vietnam's forests, but the likelihood is that they became locally extinct in the early twentieth century.
Having blasted most of their wildlife out of the forests, the Vietnamese poachers are now moving into Laos and Cambodia (where habitat and wildlife is still recovering after being ravaged by the USA’s napalm bombing during the Vietnam War). A Laotian king once called his realm the "Land of a Million Elephants" – now there are only a thousand or so wild elephants left. Cambodia is blessed not only with verdant forests, but some of the world's most important wetlands. We had planned to visit one, the Preak Toal Bird Sanctuary near Siem Reap, which is home to millions of overwintering herons, storks and pelicans. That is, until we heard the price for a day trip. US$150 each? I like my birds, but even I balked at that!
More often than not, the animals we did see turned up in the least wild places – in our bedrooms, bathrooms and on our dinner table (see Food Blog #3). Local markets are also good places to come across wildlife that has met, or is about to meet, a sticky end. Luang Prabang had a morning food market where we found squirrels, frogs, caged birds and a monkey alongside the usual chickens, ducks and fish. There's a craze for keeping songbirds in cages in Southeast Asia. At the holy wats of Luang Prabang, you can purchase small birds in bamboo cages for instant release into the wild, which is believed to bestow good luck. It might be good luck for the bird which regains its freedom, and good business for the impoverished trader who maintains her livelihood this way, but by trying to help you are perpetuating a cruel trade and condemning many more birds to trapping in the future. We stopped for a photograph, but that was all.
Having said all this, there were places in Indochina where we saw real wildlife in the wild. In Cuc Phuong National Park in Vietnam, we ventured into a limestone cave and were freaked out by the giant cave crickets, spiders and long-legged centipedes, not to mention the bats flying round our heads. We traveled extensively by boat through the waterways of north Vietnam's karst landscape, and got great sightings of kingfishers on the banks. And in Cambodia, the jungly islands off the south coast still hum with insects, and the seas with reef fish. The future may be bleak, but it's not entirely hopeless.