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Celebrating the joys of natural history

Update: January, 03/2011 - 16:57

All of a flutter: Lien has a great fondness for butterflies, which commonly feature in Vietnamese poetry and literature because of their beauty. — VNS Photos Doan Tung
Six-legged friends: Vu Van Lien hopes his collection of insects, butterflies and moths will give people a better appreciation of nature.
by Thu Giang

It is the dream of entomologist Vu Van Lien - a national museum of nature with doors that are always open to visitors. He imagines parties of schoolchildren coming to learn all about biodiversity and the environment. The valuable lessons they learn at this museum will raise their awareness of the importance of biodiversity conservation and environmental protection.

Lien says Viet Nam already has its National Museum of Nature. Indeed, he has been working there since 2009 but it is too small to receive visitors. There is space enough for specimen conservation and an office, but little else. He says he is currently waiting for approval from Ha Noi's authorities for the construction of a larger museum which will introduce people to the rich life of forests. In the meantime, he plans, with support both from the museum and donors, to stage exhibitions on the theme of forest life.

Lien has researched insects for 14 years. He recently garnered attention when photographs of insects taken by him and Italian photographer Saolo Bambi, were displayed at a three-day exhibition organised by the Viet Nam Museum of Nature and the Italian Embassy in Ha Noi. The exhibition gathered together over 200 photos of insects across the country and was the first of its kind.

Lien was born in northern Thai Binh Province in 1966. His childhood was rural; he remembers farming and buffaloes and the famously fertile paddy fields in the province.

"When I graduated from secondary school, my teacher suggested I sit the entrance exam for what was then called the Ha Noi Agricultural University 1. I agreed because at that time there was not much option. Also, the area where I grew up was a rice paddy country so that I needed to learn something useful for the agriculture sector," says the entomologist.

"I remember thinking our country was very poor. People were living with food shortages. I did not think of what great things I could achieve; I decided to try and make my own small contribution to the country."

Lien passed the university entrance exam and studied in the Faculty of Cultivation, majoring in Plant Protection. His interest in insects developed later. After graduating in 1993, he worked for the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development's Institute of Post-harvest Technology where he worked in the agriculture extension sector. Twelve months later he moved to the Ministry of Defence's Vietnamese-Russian Tropical Centre, where he hoped to advance his career by researching forest and biodiversity.

There Lien worked with foreign experts, especially Russians. They shared their experience and knowledge of insects with him. At the same time, he taught himself using books and other documents to further his knowledge.

His real involvement with insects began in 1996. That's when Lien began researching insects and collecting specimen, especially butterflies and moths. He says that not only are butterfly wings a symbol of beauty in the poetry and literature works of Viet Nam, but the changes of lifestyle of some butterfly species can tell us a lot about broader environmental change.

Lien gives the population of day-flying butterflies as an example. When forests are destroyed or trees cut down, the populations of these populations shrink because the insects lack food.

"I was lured by the beauty of the wings of those butterflies which live outside the forest. Butterflies that live in shrubland and grassland are usually brightly coloured. These colours warn predators that the butterflies are poisonous to eat. In contrast, moths are often duller in colour. But sometimes their patterns are quite extraordinary," says Lien.

Lien has visited most of Viet Nam's forests and when on field trips he always tries to capture the beauty he sees in photographs.

"I love old-growth forests and the animals, birds and insects that live there. The variety of life forms is extraordinary and fascinating. In these forests, there is biological balance. The insects feed on the plants, while the insects themselves are eaten by birds and reptiles.

Life in the forests is about struggle and self-protection," says Lien.

Lien's doctoral work was based on research into butterflies in Tam Dao National Park. He holds a master's degree in Conservation Biology from the Kunming Institute Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

From 2002 to 2008, he served as Principal Investigator for the Earthwatch project on butterflies in Viet Nam. The project studied a local protected area and detected changes in butterfly populations, with the aim of improving butterfly conservation management practices.

"Our research results were published in Biodiversity and Conservation, Journal of Zoology, and in the Russian Entomological Journal as well as in domestic journals," says Lien.

Lien says Viet Nam is doing a good job of ensuring economic development, but is not placing enough importance on the need to conserve biodiversity, or on protecting old-growth forests and the natural environment.

"The greatest threat to old-growth forests is humans. Forests provide food and shelter for animals, plants and insects. When we destroy forests, we lose habitat," says Lien.

Lien believes the most impressive forests in Viet Nam are those in the Hoang Lien Son mountain range. The old-growth forests there have been largely left alone because they are so remote.

"But even there I saw many areas at the base the mountain range where forests are being plundered by local residents. Many ancient trees had been cut down. It is a real shame."

Lien says it is not easy to make local residents aware of the importance of protecting the forests because their living depends on them and they see those areas as something they have inherited from their ancestors. He does hope, however, that his exhibitions will help raise people's awareness and make the entire community more willing to participate in protecting the forests and conserving their biodiversity.

Lien says he will open an exhibition of images of insects in HCM City this month. "We really hope that lots of people will visit the exhibition and come away with a deeper understanding of the amazing world of insects, their struggle for life and their role in the natural world. We also want to draw attention to the real danger of a declining diversity of insects, in particular, and of animals and plants in general."

Lien is also planning to co-ordinate with other forest and plant researchers to hold an exhibition on the forests of Viet Nam. He says many people, and especially the younger generation, don't know much about forests and the role they play, or about the range of forms they take. The forests of the lowlands are completely different to those seen on the peak of Mount Fansipan. And those in the south of the country are different to those of the north. Then there is the impact of humans.

"My wish now is to have a museum where we can show people the variety of Viet Nam's forests, explain their history and tell them about the animals and insects that live there," says Lien.

"Our students currently learn with books. If the new museum opens, we can show people the fruits of our research including animal, plant and insect specimens. Then visitors, especially students, will know more about the world of animals and insects. They will also see the impact that we humans are having on the world around us. — VNS

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