A vulnerable bird that usually migrated to the wetlands of the Mekong Delta has become a rare visitor to the area

DONG THAP, VIETNAM – Twenty years ago, Nguyen Van Liet took scientists to the wetlands near his hometown of Tram Chim on Vietnam’s Mekong Delta to find sarus cranes, a vulnerable bird species according to the IUCN Red List, native to Southeast Asia, South Asia and Australia.

“We had to go very early so the cranes wouldn’t know it,” Liet said of the expedition, which aimed to study the crane’s movements using a navigation device. “After sedating them, attaching tracking devices to their legs, the crew found shelter to wait for them to wake up and leave safely.”

Memories of those trips will forever be a source of pride for the 58-year-old. His efforts, no matter how humble, have contributed to helping Tram Chim become known worldwide as a place to preserve this rare crane species, which are world’s tallest flying birds.

Liet, however, has seen few cranes in recent years. The vast marshlands of Tram Chim National Park in Dong Thap province have become increasingly quiet, and are missing the slender shapes of the 1.8-meter tall red-headed birds.

According to data from the International Crane Foundation, in the 1990s, the number of cranes in Indochina, mainly Vietnam and Cambodia, fluctuated at about 900. But by 2020, this number had dropped to only 197.

The number of cranes coming to Tram Chim every year has also been decreasing. From 2014 to 2016, there were 14-23 birds returning each year, according to National Park data. But in 2020 and 2022, none were sighted.

This was not the first time the cranes have not visited their feeding grounds in Tram Chim. Over the past 50 years, their re-appearance and disappearance has been associated with periods of conservation as well as destruction of the wetland ecosystem in the name of war, politics and economic goals.

Before the vast rice fields that now dot the Mekong Delta was Dong Thap Muoi, also known as the Great Plain of Reeds, that stretched 700,000 hectares of what’s known today as the territory of three provinces – Long An, Tien Giang and Dong Thap.

Before the war against the United States, there were no canals, only a handful of small natural creeks. Come the annual flood season, from August to November, water from the Mekong River flowed into the fields very slowly because it had to weave through a thick layer of vegetation.

Fish from the upper Mekong River followed the flood water downstream to breed. The end of the flooding season started when the water receded, slowly, bit by bit. Then, by the end of the dry season, around April and May, fish gathered wherever some water remained, mostly in small pools, becoming the perfect prey for birds like storks and cranes.

But during the Vietnam-American War, in order to counter the North Vietnamese guerrilla forces hiding in the woods and bushes, the Saigon government dug a number of large canals such as Dong Tien and Phu Hiep to drain the water from the wetlands and they then set fire to it using napalm.

“That was the beginning of the annual change in the water cycle of Dong Thap Muoi; a milestone when a pristine Dong Thap Muoi started to change under the influence of human activity. The ideal living environment of cranes was impacted, gradually changing for the worse,” said Nguyen Huu Thien, an independent researcher on the ecology of the Mekong Delta.

After the liberation in 1975, Vietnam faced food shortages. A dense network of canals has since been dug in Dong Thap Muoi. Over time, the natural wetlands turned into immense rice fields.

The digging of canals, on the one hand, saved people from potential hunger, and turned Vietnam into one of the world’s biggest rice exporters. Yet it was achieved at the cost of totally changing the annual rhythm of the floods. Now, water from the Mekong enters the fields faster through the canal system in the monsoon season and exits just as fast through the canals in the dry season.

“Instead of a calm floating season, we now have a heavy flood season contributing to more severe drought and salinity than before,” said Thien.

It was widely believed that the changes in the natural flood rhythm of Dong Thap Muoi, a feeding destination for cranes in the dry season, along with the hunting of birds that blossomed after the war, have caused the cranes to completely disappear from the area.

But in 1986, Le Dien Duc, Chairman of the Vietnam Wetlands Association, went to Dong Thap and found traces of the rare crane species in the remaining wetlands. He immediately sent a letter to the international crane association, informing them of his discovery and reminding the authorities to preserve one of the world’s most precious birds.

From that point, conservation work started. In 1991, the government established a conservation center, the Tram Chim nature reserve, first at the provincial level, then at the national level. Research activities and efforts to preserve the natural habitat for the cranes followed.

The center also worked to raise people’s awareness about protecting the cranes and put out a message that they are man’s friends and the environmental ambassadors of this land.

Sarus crane dancing in Tram Chim National Park. PHOTO: Nguyen Van Hung

In 1998, Tram Chim was officially recognized as a national park with an area of 7,300 hectares accommodating 130 species of fish, nearly 200 species of plants and 231 species of birds. This place is also known as the lung of Dong Thap province, which includes vast melaleuca forests and grasslands. In the breeding season, birds fill the sky and their calls resound throughout the area.

“At the peak of the late ‘90s, more than 1,000 cranes flew to Tram Chim. They ate and danced and created a truly spectacular sight,” recalled Nguyen Van Hung, who has 28 years experience of working at Tram Chim and 11 years on the Board of Directors of the National Park.

Those conservation efforts brought Tram Chim recognition as the world’s 2,000th biosphere reserve in 2012 under the Ramsar Convention.

Additionally, cranes are also found in Phu My’s grey sedge wetland, a relatively unspoiled land in Kien Giang province in the southwest of the Mekong Delta. In 2016, the province recognized Phu My as a conservation site with an area of ​​2,700 hectares.

However, over the past decade, the last remaining wetlands of the Mekong Delta are once again threated by human activities in both Vietnam and Cambodia. Not only is the crane’s food source increasingly exhausted, but their breeding grounds have been disappearing too.

In the past, cranes often flew to the dipterocarp forests to breed in the north of Cambodia and the Central Highlands of Vietnam from September to December annually. But after growing economic development, the forest trees known for shedding their leaves in the dry season to form new ones in the rainy season have been turned into rubber plantations, sugarcane fields and cashew fields.

In particular, the wetlands around Bien Ho lake in the Central Highlands have been transformed from wastelands or one-crop rice cultivation to mostly 2-3-crop rice fields.

The Ramsar Convention recognizes only four wetland conservation areas in the Mekong Delta. Nguyen Hoai Bao, the Deputy Director of the Wetland Research Center, University of Science, Ho Chi Minh City, said the conversion of naturally flooded grasslands into aquaculture farms or multi-crop rice cultivation have changed the region’s hydroponic system.

In addition, the overuse of agrochemicals has disrupted the ecological balance, giving the cranes almost no chance of survival. He also argued that the management and protection in protected areas and the inappropriate afforestation have also led to the disappearance of the cranes in Vietnam.

It is regulations made to protect the forests that unwittingly makes “Tram Chim suffocate,” said Thien. Since 1991, when the Law on Forest Protection and Development was introduced, the government can penalize forest management units if forest fires occurred, a view that scientists objected to be applied in Tram Chim due to the regenerative role of naturally occurring forest fires there.

Still, the management board of Tram Chim National Park has been forced to store water year-round in the grasslands to prevent fires in the Melaleuca forest, instead of letting the water recede in the dry season. As a result, once again, human intervention has reduced biodiversity there.

Hung said that in the 10 years since Tram Chim was recognized by the Ramsar Convention, the national park has organized many seminars and consulted experts to solve the water-fire problem; pleading to allow forest fires in accordance with the Ramsar convention.

But there is no way out. “Because Tram Chim is famous, (so) letting it burn will create bad publicity, even though experts have also analyzed that forest fires are also a factor of the ecosystem,” he said.

The Ramsar Convention did not respond to Mekong Eye’s emailed questions.

Since the grasslands in Tram Chim are flooded all year round, cranes come there less and less because of the scarcity of their favorite food, the water chestnut. It is a tuberous plant in the dry season when the ground is still slightly damp. The plain of water chestnut plants in Tram Chim used to be thousands of hectares wide in the ‘90s, but is now merely a few hundred hectares.

The extreme weather with prolonged periods of intense sunshine due to the influence of climate change, along with changes in flows in the Mekong Delta due to upstream hydropower dams, have also contributed to the decrease in the amount of water chestnuts. Besides, when the flood water is low, other food sources for cranes such as snails and fish also disappear.

The crane’s habitat also faces many other risks such as industrial activities near Tram Chim National Park, the over-exploitation of tourism and human activities, especially the intrusion and hunting illegally in the national park.

Additionally, the hydroelectric dam system in the upper Mekong River has changed the natural water flow from upstream to downstream, affecting the flood rhythm of the whole region. Specifically, in Phu My, the situation of people encroaching on the wetlands and agricultural production near where the cranes stay causes losses to their natural habitat, and that has happened continuously in recent years.

Bao and the many devoted experts to biodiversity conservation said it was very difficult to save the Tram Chim ecosystem because their recommendations fell on deaf ears.

In the latest attempt to reintroduce cranes to Tram Chim, Dong Thap province announced in September plans of creating a new flock with eggs imported from Thailand.

But when it comes to restoring the birds’ natural ecosystem, “the solution offered is almost no solution,” emphasized Bao, explaining that once the environment had changed, restoring it was almost impossible, or very costly. The only way, he said, was to preserve the remaining natural lands; at the same time, re-zoning some inefficient rice-growing areas and reducing agrochemicals.

In this way, he hopes that in the next 10 or 15 years, there will be more positive changes.

In addition, to find a “common voice” for the development of Tram Chim in harmony with the livelihood needs of local people, especially those living near the biosphere reserve who always suffer a lot of economic disadvantage, Bao suggested promoting the strengths of the region instead of building an industrial cluster adjacent to the national park.

In May 2022, the Ha Thanh Concrete Joint Stock Company proposed building a 60-hectare brick and concrete industrial cluster right next to the cranes’ feeding area in Tram Chim. This violates the provisions of the Law on Biodiversity and would negatively affect the ecological balance of Tram Chim, warned scientists. At the time of writing, the local government had not made a final decision on the proposal.

“Currently, the agricultural industry is dominant. What we need is a methodical investment in organic and ecological agriculture, along with an investment in ecotourism development with Ramsar Tram Chim as the focal point,” Bao said, while acknowledging that tourism development would have an impact on biodiversity, but very little, compared with industrial development.

Moreover, tourism creates jobs and incomes for indigenous people, including the elderly and women, more than an industry that only employs young workers.

One day in mid-July 2022, Liet went to the back garden where one could only find traces of a once wild land with melaleuca, weeds and alum-contaminated soil. After 30 years of change, people can grow fruit trees and three rice rice crops a year, and their lives have improved, but the cranes are ever harder to find.

Both the old farmer and the people there think the same – perhaps the plains are no longer “healthy” for birds to stay in. Since the cranes no longer return, Tram Chim has gradually lost its attraction to tourists, especially international visitors.

According to Liet, in his hometown the cranes are also called storks. People erect statues for them, standing tall on the backs of turtles in pagodas, communal houses, shrines and ancestors’ altars, corresponding to the belief that people after death will ride the cranes’ back to their ancestors in heaven.

Because they are beautiful and pure animals – the signal of a healthy land with many spiritual meanings – people love them and want to protect them. Now, since the cranes are no longer coming back to this place, not only Liet but also many people regret it. “We feel like we’ve lost our old relatives,” he said.

About the writer

Tran Nguyen

Tran Nguyen is a Vietnamese journalist based in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. She covers environment and social issues.