Notes from the Field:
Viet Nam: Filling in the Gaps
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a georeference satellite image of Ha Giang Province in the north of Viet
Nam, says herpetologist Raoul Bain, different kinds of terrain show up as
different colorsgreen for forest, purple for watercourses, and so
on. The land just across the border in China on this particular map shows
pink. Pink? "Bare ground," explains Bain. "Bare ground and grasses."
The landscape on the Vietnamese side of the border is in better shape, although it has seen human use for centuries. The CBC expedition came to the Vi Xuyen district of Ha Giang Province to survey its biodiversity and make recommendations for setting aside land here for conservation, before it too shows up as bare ground on a satellite map.
The Tay Con Linh peaks here were chosen for the survey because they have significant areas of montane evergreen forest that are relatively pristine. This region was the largest area of contiguous forest the CBC and its Vietnamese partner organizations could find in the northern sector of its three-year research project.
To get to the survey site is a 10-hour drive from Ha Noi to Ha Giang, the provincial capital, then at least another hour and a half to the site (though it's only about 7 miles away as the crow flies, switchbacks and bad roads make it take that long). Once "on site," it's necessary to climb up to where the forest line starts, at about 1400 meters. (The expedition worked primarily between 1400 and 1700 m, the highest point 2200 m). The terrain is steep and travel difficult.
Forests in this part of Viet Nam are for the most part "remnant forests" on the tops of mountains. In the valleys, rice paddies take up the lower ground, which is terraced up to about 600 m. Higher up, an abrupt tree line appears, above which there is second-growth forest. Higher still the primary forest begins. It's crisscrossed by trails, with signs of use by hunters and woodcutters.
In this steep, mountainous terrain, relatively dry areas can be a short distance from lush rice paddies and water-intensive agriculture. It can be blazing hot in the valleys, and at the same time cool and rainy on the mountain tops.
The mountain forests here in the east of the Bac Bo region have not received as much scientific attention as the mountains to the west and south. The eastern mountains have less recorded birdlife, but this paucity is probably due more to lack of study than to lack of birds. Earlier surveys tended to concentrate on more accessible areas; the mountains around Ha Giang are simply not easy to reach "Just to get there was quite an ordeal," says Paul Sweet, one of two AMNH ornithologists on the expedition. Once there, the CBC scientists found plenty of birds. "The avifauna of this region is much richer than was previously documented," says Sweet.
"The eastern part is as rich as the west." Among the birds seen or collected
were approximately 25 range extensions. "And to that," says ornithologist
Christopher Vogel, "add one new record for the country. It's only a sight
record, but backed up by a couple of sources that call it unrecorded in
Raoul Bain's particular expertise is in herptiles, and while in Ha Giang he found a good number of them. This in spite of the fact that, for collecting herps, the timing of the survey was not ideal, and the duration was short. Among the herps he did collect were a salamander that hasn't been identified yet, but that may be a new species, and numerous frogs. There appear to be many more species in two frog groups than previously thought. Also found were lizards, skinks, and snakes. The life history of herptiles in Viet Nam is very poorly understood, says Bain, but the CBC survey "filled in gaps in knowledge."
Given what the survey did find in spite of the human impacts on the forest and its relatively brief duration, Bain feels certain that "there's far more to be found. We just scratched the surface of the area's biodiversity."
In addition to the three AMNH scientists on the expedition, there were five scientists from Viet Nam. The survey project was partnered with Vietnamese organizations the Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources (IEBR) and the Forest Inventory and Planning Institute (FIPI), as well as the Missouri Botanical Garden and Bird Life International. Specimens collected are divided equally with the CBC's Vietnamese partners.
There is intense human pressure on biodiversity in Viet Nam, with 76 million people living in an area only slightly larger than New Mexico. Viet Nam is planning to expand its protected area system; about 1 million hectares have been put aside already. The area of the CBC survey, lying near already protected land, makes a good candidate for conservation. This may be the only area east of the Song Roi (Red River in English) in Viet Nam that has such extensive forest in such good condition. Maintaining this forest is particularly important for biodiversity, since similar habitat over the Chinese border in Yunnan Province is said to be severely degraded and overexploited.
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