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Ecological treasure faces risk

Update: October, 16/2006 - 00:00

Ecological treasure faces risk

Sea of green: The rare pines at Bidoup-Nui Ba National Park are in desperate need of protection, as incoming development threatens the park. — VNA/VNSPhoto Duong Ngoc
Home free: Locals release a trapped deer into the forest. — VNS Photo Anh Tuan

How to get to Bidoup-Nui Ba National Park:

Transportation: It takes about one hour by car to travel from the Da Lat bus station to the park’s office.

Average temperature: 16-18oC

Food and drinks: No service available. If you want to stay for a weekend, please take a two-day supply of instant noodles.

Accommodation: No hotel rooms available, but arrangements can be made in advance at 5E Tran Hung Dao St., Da Lat, Tel. 063-823-953, Fax: 063-813-654

Bring: Rain coat, waterproof shoes, insect lotion, strong torch

Chances of seeing rare animals: Good, if you stay for a month

(15-10-2006)

A short drive from Da Lat, Bidoup-Nui Ba National Park is tucked away between two mountain ranges. Nguyen Anh Tuan explores the park and finds out why it’s worth protecting.

We left the beautiful city of Da Lat in a Russian jeep and headed west of the city. An hour later, we arrived at the foot of Bidoup-Nui Ba National Park and drove up until we were 300m from Mt Cong Troi, 2,272m above sea level.

As we stepped out of our vehicle to commence our climb to the top, clouds wrapped around us and the chilly air cooled our heads. When we looked up to the top, an immense pine forest spread before us. After 15 minutes of trekking, I turned to admire the valley behind me, wrapped in a bluish grey haze.

As we gazed out at the lush valley of khasia pine trees (pinus kesiya) heavy clouds rolled in, dousing us with a cold rain. In no time, I was soaked, wishing I had a hot baked corn to warm me up.

The rain ended as quickly as it began, clearing the sky to allow the sun to shine unobstructed by clouds. The sun’s slanting rays shone into the dark green of the forest, against the backdrop of a greyish sky.

When my companion called me, I was shaken from the spell of my surroundings.

Mountain lovers

Park ranger Ton That Minh informed us that the park gained its name from the two mountain ranges surrounding it, the Bidoup and Lang Bian.

Local people have handed down a story of the birth of the mountain. According to the legend, a young man named Lang, a member of the Lat tribe, fell in love with a girl Bian from the Sre tribe. An ancestors’ spell between the two tribes prevented them from getting married, so the young couple chose death as their everlasting union.

Touched by their love, the people in the region buried them on a mountain with two tops side-by-side and named the mountain Lang Bian. The lovers inspired their tribesmen to break the ancient spell and live together in peace. Even the animals were touched by the fateful death: two elephants that Lang tamed crossed 10 mountains to mourn their master. Soon after they arrived, so the legend says, the elephants collapsed from exhaustion and died, turning into the mountain named Bidoup, forever looking over at Lang Bian.

This powerful tale of tragic love united the tribes of Lat, Sre and Cil, which merged into today’s K’Ho ethnic group.

Natural diversity

This story has given way to a new story, told today by nature conservationists.

Bidoup-Nui Ba National Park ranks among the five largest national parks, covering 64,800ha of forest. According to biologists, because of the natural protection provided by the two mountain ranges, the national park is home to the oldest primordial forest in the Central Highlands.

The park’s three mountain tops form the roof of the Indochinese peninsula: Mt. Lang Bian at 2,189m, Bidoup at 2,278m and Cong Troi, or Heaven’s Gate, at 2,272m.

Visitors to the famous Da Lat City often mistakenly assume that the pine forest there is the same as their European pine forests. In actuality, Bidoup-Nui Ba National Park contains 10 out of the 11 endangered species of pines. Along the slope of Lang Bian range, the khasia pines, according to biologists, are a distinct species of the park as they only grow between 1,000 to 2,000m above sea level.

On Bidoup, across the valley from Nui Ba, the forest contains merkus pines, a variety unique to the Asian mainland and one of the rarest species of pine in the world. The trees’ trunks can measure 4m in diameter, and the trunks can reach up to 20m in length before branching out.

Nguyen Van Hung, head of the Forest Protection Unit and deputy director of the park, emphasises that rare species such as these are what gives the park its singular appeal for conservationists and eco-tourists.

"The merkus pines are our pride; their uniqueness adds to the distinctiveness of the park," Hung says.

On the branches of these rare pines, visitors can spot over 200 species of birds. Many of these species are endangered species, including the grey-crowned crocias (crocias langbianis), the black-hooded laughingthrush (garrulax pectoralis) and the collared laughingthrush (garrulax yersini).

The park also possesses the largest orchid gene pool in the country, with 250 different species. Orchids that originated here take the mountains in their scientific names, such as dendrobium langbianense, oberonia langbianensis, elaeocarpus bidupensis and vanda bidupensis.

Among the most distinctive features of Lang Bian forest are its bulls, which once reigned over the forest in herds of six or seven. Biologists believe that only one or two of these enormous creations, measuring 2.5m and weighing nearly one tonne, still live in the park.

Rarities: (From top) The red deer (cervus eldii), the bull (bos gaurus) and the markus pine make Bidoup-Nui Ba National Park stand out among other conservation centres around the country. — VNS Photos Anh Tuan

Birdwatching: The grey crowned crocias (Mi Langbian), a distinct feature of the park.

Development forces

Bidoup-Nui Ba National Park will be enclosed into the larger Da Lat City when the latter is upgraded to become a central region metropolis. Forest rangers warn that preservation efforts should be tightened, and new means of cultivation must also be introduced.

"The K’Ho people have lived here for many generations," says Do Manh Hung, the park’s deputy director. "They still maintain their hunting and gathering methods, and they set fires in the forest as well."

According to park officials, the local people’s understanding of the need to protect natural diversity comes second to the urgent need to put food on the table for their families. Recent investigation has shown that more than 90ha of the core jungle have been cleared and inhabited, setting off warning bells that the natural habitat is in danger.

With the introduction of humans in the forest, the 20,000ha of pine forest also face constant threat from unattended fires during the dry season, from October until the following April.

Through a project to raise management capacity in the park’s leadership, funded by the Viet Nam Conservation Fund, the park rangers are hoping to solve their issues with the help of an expanded staff.

Do Quang Tung, director of the Viet Nam Conservation Fund, an NGO funded by the World Bank, explains that the fund’s assistance to the national park is intended "to raise management capacity to better protect specialised forest in Viet Nam".

Soon, the staff will include 35 new members, though currently they lack professional experience in management or biological diversity preservation.

At the Cong Troi checkpoint, three staff members currently cover an area of nearly 5,500ha, though the standard is one ranger per 1,000ha. They receive news by travelling 40km to the nearest rangers post and by watching a black-and-white television that runs on battery power.

We trekked 90-minutes from the Cong Troi station to the nearest park rangers post, where we met Nguyen Van Hung, the head of the post. Hung says that the new rangers will have to get used to living in isolation.

"The staff members are very young; they are new graduates. We will get their news only once every couple of months when they come to us or we send people up," Nguyen Van Hung says.

Park director Le Van Huong hopes that the new rangers will ease the burden on the existing rangers.

"It takes 10 days to cover the 60,000ha of the park by foot, and we have been trying really hard to moniter it on strained budget," Huong says.

In 2007, the Viet Nam Conservation Fund hopes to assist 15 national parks and nature reserves to preserve the ecological diversity of the forests for sustainable development.

When we returned to the park’s outpost, we rented horses to ride and then paused at Suoi Vang Lake, enjoying the cool, pine-scented breeze off the water. Life around us was suspended in slow motion. The perfect harmony of this place was enough to make me realise the vital need to protect it. — VNS

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