Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003, yet conservation remains a thorny issue. Local pioneer Hai Nguyen is leading the effort to fuse tourism with environmental preservation. Words by Zoe Osborne. Photos by Mike Palumbo

 

Despite efforts throughout the 20th century to protect and sustain Vietnam’s lush biodiversity, the long-lasting civil conflicts left people and the country’s natural habitat in tatters. According to Sterling, Hurley and Le in Vietnam: A Natural History, the long-range ecocide tactics used in the American War did the most damage to Vietnam’s environment in the country's history.

 

After 1975, Vietnam began to rebuild. “Back then, people here were very poor and [in Phong Nha] they depended on the jungle to eat,” says Hai Nguyen, owner of Hai's Eco Conservation Tours. “Their priority had to be survival, not how their lives affected the nature around them.”

 

A number of studies have been conducted on the link between poverty and reduced forest conservation in Vietnam. Muller, Epprecht and Sunderlin found that areas of heavy forestation often coincide with high levels of poverty and poor accessibility and this 2006 study connected economic growth to increased environmental awareness.

 

As Vietnam developed, farming in areas such as Phong Nha became the main livelihood for the local people, but since they couldn’t sell their crops for much they often had to return to the forest to support their families. This is still an issue today.

 

“They grow peanuts, corn, pepper — none of these things raise much money,” says Hai. “They have to find a supplement to their income, and if there is no other option they turn to the jungle.”

 

Illegal logging is prominent in these areas and closer to town, as locals look for ways to earn money.

 

The illegal animal trade is equally prevalent but a national effort is being made to curb it. Jungle meat carries much more value than farm meat, because it is harder to obtain, but also because of its quality. Some animals are also sold as pets or smuggled illegally around Vietnam and to other parts of the world.

 

“They often use local buses,” says Hai. “The Wildlife Rescue Center here does raids. The last time we stopped a bus we found 30 turtles and a python.”

 

Fighting Back

 

A number of organisations such as Education for Nature (ENV), Freeland and its awareness campaign iThink, are now working to end animal trafficking in Vietnam. But wildlife trafficking and deforestation are also being tackled on the ground in national parks.

 

“At the Wildlife Rescue Centre [in Phong Nha], we rehabilitate trafficked animals and try to promote eco-friendly living among local people,” says Hai. “The rangers patrol the area, stopping poaching, rescuing animals and running local awareness campaigns.”

 

The Rescue Centre was built in 2007 as a project by the Cologne Zoo in Germany.

 

“The zoo sent a group to set up base here in 2005,” says Hai. “At that time, there was no place to keep the rescued animals so they built the centre.”

 

Although the zoo ended its involvement a few years later, the rescue centre continues its work.

 

“We process animals in four main steps,” says Hai. “First we rescue them, then we help them to rehabilitate. We often have to fix open wounds or amputate limbs, and animals must be kept in quarantine until they are healthy. If they regain their natural instincts we release them and if not we start a reintroduction programme.”

 

Hai owns a range of other businesses in town that help fund this work. Having grown up 160km south of Phong Nha, he first came to the area as a qualified English teacher to work with the Cologne Zoo project. When it ended in 2013, Hai was offered work at a new project in Dong Hoi, but he turned it down and set up shop in town.

 

“I opened Jungle Bar in 2013 — it was the first backpacker bar on the strip,” says Hai. “Later, I merged it with Easy Tiger and then I opened Bamboo Café.”

 

Hai is also the founder of Hai’s Eco Conservation Tours, promoting sustainable local tourism, and providing a way for tourists to learn about conservation in the area. Hai runs campaigns to collect donations for the Resuce Centre, and tries to work with the local people as much as possible.

 

“This is the best way to reduce the impact on Phong Nha's natural environment,” he says. “We provide jobs for hunters and loggers to get them out of the jungle. Many of them know that what they're dong is wrong, but they have no other option.”

 

Tracing Steps

 

All of Hai’s eco-tours cover wildlife conservation and a jungle trek. “Our customers tend to be people with insightful thinking,” he says. “Anyone can join the tour, but a basic level of fitness is required as the treks are not easy.” Hai can tailor tours to his guests and will work with specific dietary requirements.

 

The Jungle Trek & Wildlife day tour begins in town, on the back of a local driver’s motorbike. It runs from 8.30am to 5pm. Guests are brought to the Wildlife Rescue Centre first, to hear about the work it does and take the opportunity to visit the rescued animals. “We find primates, civets, turtles, porcupines, pythons, birds and wild pigs,” says Hai. “We take them to the centre to recover.”

 

The tour then moves to the National Park and guests follow Hai on a winding, hand-cut route through thick, smothering green, that the soldiers used during the war. If no-one trod this route for even two weeks, it would be swallowed up by the jungle. Hai explains the area as the group moves, demonstrating a mock-up of a local animal trap, and leading his guests to a picnic, barbequed onsite at a cave campfire.

 

“We send members of our team ahead of the tour to prepare the lunch,” says Hai, “When guests arrive they can watch the meat being cooked before sitting down to eat.”

 

Close by is Weapon Cave, an old strategic ground-firing spot used during the war, and is still riddled with rusty bullets.

 

Spending time and money on an eco-tour is a great way to contribute to local jobs and conservation in Phong Nha, but there are a number of other things you can do too, according to Hai.

 

“You can help us to promote eco-tourism here by simply spreading the word,” he says. “And any campaign to raise support for the animals at the centre would be greatly appreciated.”

 

But at the end of the day, just being in Phong Nha is helping the cause, because every new tourist brings another local an employment opportunity, much needed cash and a chance to get out of the jungle.

 

For more information on Hai’s Eco Conservation tours, click on ecophongnha.com

 

Zoe Osborne

Born in England and raised in Australia, Zoe was taught how to travel from a young age. At barely 19 she left for India and a year later she left again, finding herself in Vietnam with a bit of cash and a plan to make a plan. Now a staff writer for Word Vietnam, Zoe counts her blessings every day as she wakes up to another fascinating story and another bowl of hu tieu. You can find her on Facebook at @zoeosborne.journalist.

Website: www.zosborne.com

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