Parks, Planning, and Protection
The Ngoc Linh Nature Reserve lies deep in central Vietnam on the Kon Tum Plateau, a region of lush forests isolated from most human traffic. This unique ecosystem is separated from surrounding habitats by a series of high mountains. Smaller than 50 square kilometers (about 19 square miles) in size, the existing Ngoc Linh Nature Reserve contains a wealth of biodiversity. Biological surveys conducted in the area by several institutions, including the American Museum of Natural History, the Missouri Botanical Garden and the Institute of Ecological and Biological Resources in Vietnam, have recorded 385 plant species, 51 mammals, 171 birds, 15 reptiles and 25 amphibians; and many more species remain to be discovered. Sixteen globally threatened plant species live here, as does the Annamite muntjac (Muntiacus truongsonensis), a recently discovered relative of deer that is found in only two other areas of Vietnam. One bird species, the golden-winged laughing thrush (Garrulax ngoclinhensis), is found nowhere in the world except on the slopes of one mountain in the area.
Planners would like to expand the boundaries of the Ngoc Linh Nature Reserve as part of an ambitious effort by the government of Vietnam to address environmental degradation within the nation’s borders. As of 1990, more than 90 protected areas, covering some 4 percent of the country, had been placed under government protection. The government aims to increase the total land area protected to 6 percent within the next several years. Some regions have higher biodiversity than others, however, and not all the areas currently under protection merit the status they’ve been given. Various institutions and conservation groups from around the world are working with the Vietnamese government to make sure that newly protected environments live up to their promise: providing habitat for plants and animals that are most immediately threatened by human activity. If established, the Ngoc Linh Nature Reserve in Quang Nam province would connect to three additional reserves in Kon Tum province to the south of Quang Nam: Ngoc Linh Nature Reserve (this reserve, though it has the same name, is in a different province and has already been established), Kon Ka Kinh Nature Reserve, and Kon Cha Rang Nature Reserve. If conservation planners can succeed, the large, contiguous protected area would be elevated to the status of a national park.
Protected areas are one means of ensuring the survival of critically endangered species. In Vietnam, the Tonkin snub-nosed monkey (Rhinopitheus avunculus) is found at only a handful of sites. Although these reserves are recognized and protected by the government, they are ultimately too small for the primate’s needs. Unless these areas are expanded, as some conservation groups have urged, the animal will not survive in the long run. BirdLife International, a non-profit conservation organization, has identified 63 areas in Vietnam that merit expansion and protection in order to ensure the survival of numerous bird species threatened by development. Of course, these Important Bird Areas (IBAs) would benefit many other animals and plants. Nonetheless, the main goal of the IBAs is to preserve habitat for a specific group of organisms.
Habitat-based conservation takes a wider view: it aims to protect unique types of habitats and, as a result, the communities of plants and animals that live in them. In Vietnam, conservation groups such as the World Wildlife Fund, BirdLife International, and the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History, hope to connect the many separated patches of forest into wildlife “corridors” that would enable animals to roam farther and more freely. Animals such as tigers, which require large hunting ranges, would benefit from such corridors, as would many species of birds. The proposed Ngoc Linh Nature Reserve in Quang Nam province is attractive precisely because it augments an existing reserve in the adjacent Kon Tum province with a relatively large stretch of intact forest. In fact, it spans several different types of forest between 150 meters to 2,600 meters (about 490 to 8,530 feet) in elevationthe longest uninterrupted stretch of different-elevation habitat types remaining in Vietnam. And since the proposed reserve is adjacent to other protected areas, the cumulative effect of these neighboring areas would be greater than protecting each of them singly.
A third approach to conservation takes the widest view of all. It aims for the preservation of whole “ecoregions”, large contiguous areas of land that encompass many different kinds of habitats within a fairly uniform climate. Ecoregions often span international borders; the Central Truong Son ecoregion, for example, straddles the borders of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Ecoregional conservation plans have the potential to protect not one but many distinct habitats, each with its own suite of unique and threatened plants and animals. Expanding the Ngoc Linh Reserve system would provide substantial protection to an important ecoregion that is rich in biodiversity. Its extensive network of forested river valleys make the region surrounding Ngoc Linh particularly interesting to planners, because intact river systems--rivers whose paths have not been cleared of vegetation--are among the most threatened habitats in Southeast Asia. The proposed National Park would form one of the largest uninterrupted areas under conservation protection in Vietnam
Because ecoregions can be large, their effective management requires that careful attention be paid to socioeconomic development. Research suggests that the proposed Ngoc Linh National Park would benefit the lives of the people who live downstream. For example, protecting the forests would greatly minimize soil erosion during times of heavy rain; erosion not only harms agriculture (because the rich topsoil is washed away), it also clogs rivers and streams, which villages farther away depend on for irrigation and drinking water. Intact forests also delay the runoff of rainwater and so help reduce the likelihood and severity of flooding. Forests also ensure that water is available in streams even during periods of low rainfall. Thus, water supplies would be ensured for cash crops at critical times of the year when rainfall is lacking.
“Vietnam is pushing for diversity,” says Phan Ke Loc, a botanist with the Institute for Ecological and Biological Resources, “because we understand that every effort of humankind has always been, and will always be, utterly dependent on biological diversity.”