Vietnam: A Natural History

by AMNH on


Vietnam: A Natural History, published by Yale University Press, is the first comprehensive volume on the country's extraordinary flora and fauna and diverse natural areas. Spectacularly illustrated with maps, photographs, and 35 original watercolor illustrations, this engaging 406-page book, co-written by Eleanor J. Sterling, Director of the American Museum of Natural History's Center for Biodiversity and Conservation (CBC), and CBC Biodiversity Scientists Martha M. Hurley and Le Duc Minh, offers a complete tour for scientists, naturalists, and the general reader of Vietnam's plants and animals along with an in-depth discussion of the factors shaping their evolution, distribution, and conservation.

Vietnam: A Natural History grew out of a conservation biology research and training project in Vietnam initiated in 1997 by the CBC. The goal of the project is to assist the country, a biodiversity hotspot, with the protection and sustainable management of its natural resources. Vietnam encompasses a wide variety of unique habitats, including four internationally recognized Endemic Bird Areas (critical regions for bird conservation designated by Bird-Life International). Meanwhile, the human population grows, the country's markets expand, and the international wildlife trade increases all factors that threaten the preservation of the nation's unique biodiversity. The government has committed to developing protected areas, training conservation biologists, gathering and maintaining basic collections of plants and animals, and collaborating with foreign scientific and conservation organizations. Currently, four percent of Vietnam's total area is protected, and officials are committed to increasing that figure to six percent, which is part of what motivated the Museum to get involved in generating science to guide this growth.

As part of its commitment to providing scientific research and guidance in areas of the world harboring dense concentrations of biodiversity, the CBC has partnered with the Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources in Hanoi (IEBR) and several universities in Vietnam, as well as World Wildlife Fund Greater Mekong Programme, to collaborate on research, education, and training; to assess the diversity and distributions of Vietnamese biota; and to identify conservation priorities and potential new protected areas.

One of the most significant results of this partnership so far has been a series of biotic surveys covering the past nine years in six different geographic regions of Vietnam that have been historically understudied. The multi-taxa surveys, for which the CBC trained research staff in Vietnamese institutions, have allowed these institutions to create and curate comprehensive research collections for phylogenetic and biogeographic analyses and conservation management decisions. The surveys have identified a number of species new to science and have yielded extensions of the range of particular species, and, in some cases, the first-reported discoveries of certain species in Vietnam. The results especially point to potentially high levels of hidden biodiversity among amphibians. Mammal survey results from the Huong Son Forest have helped scientists to realize the utility of small mammals in monitoring overall ecosystem health. Analyses of remotely sensed imagery (reaching back to 1950s aerial photography) indicate long-term stability of core forested sections in central Vietnam's Quang Nam and Thua Thien-Hue Provinces, an area of high biotic diversity and endemism. These forest cover maps are being employed in regional conservation planning and monitoring, for example, the development of the Song Bung hydroelectric dam adjacent to Song Thang Nature Reserve. Results from survey work and Geographic Information System (GIS) analyses of forest loss also contributed to the feasibility study of the proposed Nature Reserve at Ngoc Linh (Quang Nam Province).

Other results of this joint venture include the development of a laboratory at the IEBR and at the American Museum of Natural History for analysis of invertebrate specimens; a searchable, web-based collections database of the biotic survey results; and the design of conservation biology materials for use by educators at the undergraduate and graduate levels in Vietnam and other countries in the region. Over the next three years, CBC scientists will return to Vietnam to continue surveying for new amphibian and mammal species, examine the prevalence of malaria in reptile populations, analyze changes in forest cover, and develop and employ GIS maps and camera trapping as tools to allow local conservation practitioners to monitor targeted protected areas.

Book Details, Artwork

Uncommonly rich in plants, animals, and natural habitats, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam shelters a significant portion of the world's biological diversity, including rare and unique organisms and an unusual mixture of tropical and temperate species. Vietnam: A Natural History reports on dozens of newly described species of amphibians, birds, and mammals as well as current efforts to conserve Vietnam's complex, fragile, and widely threatened biodiversity. The book also explores the long history of humans in the country, including the impact of the Vietnam-American War on the region's biodiversity.

Throughout the book, compelling and vivid original watercolors by wildlife biologist and artist Joyce A. Powzyk illustrate select examples of Vietnam's most important plants and animals. More than half the species depicted have rarely been seen. In order to render wildlife as accurately as possible, Dr. Powzyk extensively researched each painting by consulting original species descriptions, historical plates, museum specimens, field guides, expert opinions, and photographs where they existed. 

Vietnam's biological diversity remains incompletely documented, in part because research and exploration of the region dropped off during the First Indochinese War, which began soon after World War II and lasted until 1954, and the Vietnam-American War, lasting from 1955 to 1975. In the early 1990s, scientific research on Vietnam's biological diversity resurged following the government's 1986 decision to implement the policy of Doi Moi (economic "renovation"). The natural history presented in this new book reflects the current state of knowledge. 

Separate chapters of the book focus on northern, central, and southern Vietnam, regions that encompass tropics, subtropics, mountains, lowlands, wetland and river regions, delta and coastal areas, and offshore islands. The authors provide detailed descriptions of key natural areas to visit, where a traveler might explore limestone caves or glimpse some of the country's 27 known monkey and ape species and more than 850 bird species, many of which can only be found in Vietnam or in adjacent regions. 

Few natural forests remain intact in Vietnam and even very isolated areas are less than a few days' walk from the nearest human settlement. Many natural areas are fragmented islands in a sea of human development. Nonetheless, Vietnam remains a fascinating placebiologically, geologically, and culturallyand has much to share with visitors seeking a stronger connection with its past and present beauty, history, and diversity.

A majority of the authors' royalties earned from sales of this book will be contributed to an educational fund supporting Southeast Asians working in biodiversity conservation.

The book is available in the Museum Shop at the American Museum of Natural History in hardcover for $40.00.

Media Inquiries: Department of Communications, 212-769-5800