On one island, a microcosm of Vietnam’s environmental challenges

The issues facing Cat Ba’s coastal areas were brought into clearer relief when I was taken into the mangrove forests along the island’s western fringe. Nguyen Thi Kim Cuc, of the Mangrove Ecosystem Research Division at Vietnam National University’s Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Studies, said in an email that these mangroves are in better shape than they were two decades ago, unlike many of the island’s animal species, but problems persist.

“In terms of management, it is better than the period before the year 2000,” Cuc wrote. “But the mangrove area is still reduced compared to historic distribution, and there are fewer big trees and less biodiversity.”

These forests are vital for protecting coastal communities from storms and strong waves, which frequently threaten this part of northern Vietnam. “We face several typhoons [around Cat Ba] every year, and we know that if you have mangroves, you are safe, if you don’t have mangroves, you aren’t safe,” Cuc said.

Certain sections of western Cat Ba have actually seen new mangroves grow, but some are located within aquaculture ponds, and are therefore cut off from the broader ecosystem. These trees were no more than 1.8 to 2.4 meters (6 to 8 feet) tall, while mangroves elsewhere in Southeast Asia can be several times higher.

Port cranes on Cat Hai Island tower in the background of a functional mangrove forest on Cat Ba. Photo by Michael Tatarski.

This struck Christoph Zöckler, senior biodiversity adviser for Asia at the Manfred Hermsen Stiftung in Germany, who also joined this trip. When asked how Cat Ba’s mangroves compared, he discussed their relatively small size.

“The first thing I can say is that I was a little bit disappointed when I saw the mangroves because they were very small and the area is not very wide,” he said via Skype after the visit. “But then, I have to take into consideration that we are actually quite far north as well, and they are not necessarily stunted by human impact, but by climate, weather and environmental conditions.”

Cuc added that the region’s relatively cold winters, which see temperatures fall much lower than in coastal areas of Myanmar, Thailand or southern Vietnam, limit the height of mangroves here.

She said local people now have a much better understanding of the importance of mangroves, meaning the threat of illegal logging has largely disappeared, though healthy regrowth of damaged areas takes time.

“Previously, a lot of mangrove areas were converted for roads and factories [on the mainland], and of course we faced illegal cutting and people did not care much about mangroves,” Cuc said. “Once they understood their role, they changed their minds and their actions.”

A few miles away we observed a much more functional mangrove forest. This one wasn’t cut off from the sea by fish farms, and the trees were much thicker and taller since they received nutrients from tidal flows. They were also located directly in front of a dike that shields a village from the ocean. These mangroves form another layer of protection, which is exactly the function coastal preservationists want to see.

Invisible wildlife

A mangrove forest within aquaculture ponds on Cat Ba's west coast. Photo by Michael Tatarski.
A mangrove forest within aquaculture ponds on Cat Ba’s west coast. Photo by Michael Tatarski.

While much of Cat Ba is covered by the national park and biosphere reserve, it is very difficult for a visitor to see the wildlife these areas contain.

Zöckler, who has studied migratory bird populations around the world, noted the island’s seeming lack of wild birds.

“I noticed that the void of birds is very obvious,” he said. “I’ve never seen it more obvious than in northern Vietnam. There is obvious pressure from hunting and poaching, which is evidently legal, and is so severe that there is hardly any chance for most bird species to actually settle.”

Zöckler has conducted extensive coastal research in Myanmar and nearby southern China, where he found bird populations to be much more robust.

Even the treasured langurs aren’t free of this threat, Leonard said.

“In 2015, some people from a neighboring province came in, and it looks like they killed an entire langur group plus a few other individuals,” he said. That one incident dropped their population from the mid-60s into the low 50s, and the primates are still recovering.

I didn’t expect to see any langurs on our cruise through Lan Ha Bay, which lasted from morning until midday, and we did not, but we saw no other terrestrial wildlife either. It is clear that human activity has pushed most species deep into the national park.

Cat Ba’s future

With few exceptions, stories related to tourism and industrial development in Vietnam are negative: a mountain town altered beyond recognition, an island overwhelmed by trash, a waterway killed by factory runoff. For now, Cat Ba has largely avoided these disasters, but change is at the gates, whether it’s the massive development underway in nearby cities, or direct construction such as the mysterious Sun Group resort plan.

This was my third visit to the island, and I was heartened to see that it hasn’t changed dramatically since 2011, when I first went. More hotels are under construction, but they are generally small, and unlike other fast-developing parts of Vietnam it doesn’t look like a giant building site. The big questions are whether this will still be the case in five years, and how development and conservation can co-exist.

“There is increasing realization that the reason people are coming here is because of these special things that can only be found here,” Leonard told me. “So there needs to be a balance found, and I don’t think we’re at a point yet where it’s tipped completely one way. But I do think that if the trend continues at the same pace that it is going, the development is going to outstrip the conservation side.”

He added: “I think one of the key important messages to put across is that people working in conservation aren’t against development, we know it’s going to happen, but good development done well can actually be a really great benefit to the people, the nation and also to conservation.”

Banner image: The youngest Cat Ba langur, which was recorded last week, sits with its mother atop a limestone tower, while a juvenile langur climbs nearby. Photo by Neahga Leonard for the Cat Ba Langur Conservation Project.

About the reporter: Michael Tatarski is Editor-in-Chief of the Saigoneer and a Vietnam-based freelance journalist. You can find him on Twitter at @miketatarski

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Article published by Genevieve Belmaker

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