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Entering the giant ‘bird nest’ in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta

Monday, February 15, 2016, 09:32 GMT+7
Entering the giant ‘bird nest’ in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta
A family of 'giang sen,' an endangered stork variety, are pictured in the 200-hectare quarantine area.

A wetland reserve and bird sanctuary nestled in the Mekong Delta has recently been included on a list of ‘Wetlands of International Importance,’ as it offers rich biodiversity and presents significant challenges to conservation at the same time.

It is the seventh such site in Vietnam to be included on the list managed by Ramsar. 

With an area less than 20 percent that of its neighbor, Tram Chim National Park in Dong Thap Province, Lang Sen Wetland Reserve, which spans three communes in Tan Hung District in Long An Province, appears overshadowed by the overwhelming fame of Tram Chim.

Tram Chim, 30 kilometers from the Lang Sen reserve, has emerged as a beloved ecotourism site over recent years.  

The management of Lang Sen are keen to promote it in a similar way.

Established in January 2004, Lang Sen was listed as a ‘Wetland of International Importance’ on November 27 last year upon the official recognition by the Ramsar Convention, making it Vietnam’s seventh addition to the list.

The Ramsar Convention is an international treaty signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971, and has continued to provide a national framework for wetland preservation ever since.

Titan ‘bird nest’

Covering a total area of more than 4,802 hectares, the Lang Sen reserve is a microcosm of the natural landscape surrounding the pristine Dong Thap Muoi (Plain of Reeds).

At 5:00 am recently, two Tuoi Tre (Youth) reporters paid a visit to Lang Sen, whose name literally means ‘the wetland with many lotus flowers.’

They were heartily welcomed by Nguyen Linh Em, one of the sanctuary’s staffers.

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Part of Lang Sen Wetland Reserve, which spans three communes in Tan Hung District in the Mekong Delta province of Long An. Photo: Tuoi Tre

“The entire haven is divided into 12 plots. Right now we’re heading to its heavily restricted center, which stretches approximately 2,000 hectares,” Em said while he maneuvered a skiff with great ease through lush paddies of ‘ghost rice.’

Residents in neighboring areas are allowed to enter the site during harvest time.

A while later, Em suddenly turned off the sampan’s engine, allowing the reporters to hear the rustling hubbub.

“We’re in the 200-hectare ‘bird nest,’ to which access is strictly limited,” he explained.

The low-lying saline land boasts vast expanses of lush cajuput, all topped with thousands of varieties of birds.

The Tuoi Tre reporters, who have traversed several national parks across the country, kept marveling at such a huge concentration of birds, a sight they had never been treated to.

Em added that this cajuput forest is the first and only area in Vietnam where botanists have found ‘co oc’ nesting, though thousands are sometimes seen flocking to the Tram Chim park, also a Ramsar site, to feed.

‘Co oc’ is a rare variety of storks known scientifically as Anastomus oscitans.

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A stork is seen in its nest in the strictly protected 200-hectare ‘bird nest’ as part of Lang Sen Wetland Reserve. Photo: Tuoi Tre

A biodiversity asset

“If the Tram Chim park is a bird ground, the Lang Sen reserve can be considered a bird nest in the Mekong Delta,” said Dr. Le Phat Quoi, of the Institute for Environment and Resources under the Vietnam National University-Ho Chi Minh City.

“The wildlife haven is the most biologically diverse across the Mekong Delta,” he added.

Among biological maps of several national parks, including Tram Chim, Dr. Quoi pointed to Lang Sen’s advantage over other delta areas.

“Lang Sen is a low-lying land which stands a mere 0.42-1.8 meters above sea level, and is fed mostly by Mekong River tributaries including the Hong Ngu-Long An Canal and the Lo Gach River,” he explained.

“Several areas in Lang Sen are underwater all year round, and boast fish listed in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The fish have reached the size and ferocity of ‘river monsters’,” he stressed.

In addition, Lang Sen is currently home to 156 floral varieties and 149 vertebrate breeds, not to mention fish.

Among them, twenty-three varieties are listed in Vietnam’s and the world’s red lists of endangered species.

Some of the rare species are ‘dieng dieng’ (snake-necked pelican), ‘le le’ (teal), ‘diec lua’ (purple heron) and the kingfisher.

More than two months ago, Dr. Quoi was elated to receive a photo from Em which captured a ‘meo ca’ (fishing cat, or Prionailurus viverrinus) roaming the Lang Sen reserve.

The medium-sized wild cat has been listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Conservation challenges

During the visit, the Tuoi Tre reporters spotted some dead ‘ca tra’ (a kind of catfish) floating on the surface.

“‘Ca tra’ and ‘ca loc bong’ (trout) here can weigh well over 20 kilograms. The dead fish were attacked and killed by the larger ones, which we don’t interfere with,” Truong Thanh Son, director of the Lang Sen reserve, revealed.

The reserve’s 2,000-hectare central zone is surrounded and guarded by more than 12 stations with staff on constant standby.

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Nguyen Linh Em, one of the sanctuary’s staffers, skillfully maneuvers a sampan into the 200-hectare 'bird nest.' Photo: Tuoi Tre

However, conservation efforts have faced the challenge of a rice plantation and fish farm in its periphery, Son elaborated.

“Waterfowl or fish which transcend our safeguarded area are very likely to end up dead or get caught,” he noted.

The reserve’s limited protected areas have also rendered it ineligible as a national park.

“Areas such as the 200-hectare ‘bird nest’ which borders residential neighborhoods pose headaches for conservationists,” Son added.

As annual government grants are only enough to cover staff salaries, conservation activities rely mostly on support from nongovernmental organizations.

“Birds have a high sense of security. They build nests here as they still feel safe. A nesting season generally does extensive harm to cajuput forests,” Dr. Quoi noted.

“The thriving species have outgrown the 2,000-hectare central area, forcing them to leave the safety of the center for peripheral zones to find food. The expansion of these peripheral areas must thus be taken into consideration sooner or later,” the pundit concluded.

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