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Disquiet on a tranquil front

Amidst serene beauty, a national park is losing its treasures

Taking flight: White storks at the Xuan Thuy National Park in Nam Dinh Province, 150 kilometers southwest of Hanoi. Many flora and fauna species at the park are said to be on the verge of extinction.


The tranquility of a world at repose is broken as fresh white wings soar from the moorland with a flash of sunshine on the silvery feathers, leathery oval leaves falling in their wake from the River Mangrove trees.

The gulls are early risers.

A new day begins at the Xuan Thuy National Park, recognized by the Ramsar Convention as a wetland of international importance. The Ramsar Convention, which is named after the eponymous town in Iran, is an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable utilization of wetlands.

It is located in Giao Thuy District of Nam Dinh Province, 150 kilometers to the southwest of Hanoi, where thousands of flora and fauna species have been recorded and many are on the threshold of extinction.

At the Red River estuary, the sun was emerging, pink and fresh, embroidering the region with golden light.

The tide had receded; the silt-laden river was contracting itself into a reddish-brown water dragon making its way to the Pacific Ocean.

On the narrow footpath, half-asleep beach morning glories were shaking crystal dewdrops off their shiny heart-shaped leaves and unfolding the first umbrella-shaped purple flowers to welcome butterflies.

In the moss rose patches, red blossoms were also starting to open like little flames.

Nearby the rattle pod trees kept swinging their golden flowers as if to dance with the breeze and tease the bees.

A horde of dragonflies hawked over and landed on the touch-me-nots, making the sensitive plants fold their leaves inward and go back to sleep.

A breeze brought in the fresh, salty smell of the sea. From somewhere in the mangrove forest came shivering, squeaky tweets as if some hungry chick was crying for its mother to come back and feed it.

The Xuan Thuy National Park is, officially, a 7,000-ha mangrove-covered area providing a habitat and migratory platform to more than 200 species of birds, including endangered and rare species such as the black-faced spoon-bill, Saunders' Gull, the spotted greenshank, the spoon-billed sandpiper and the Asian dowitcher.

Four or five white storks flew by; their large wings almost touching the observatory tower. The waders perched on a mangrove apple tree, preening themselves in silence.

A flock of passerines landed on the sandy flat, cheeping noisily as they walked along the waters edge with their long yellow tails moving up and down continuously. Their little round eyes were black beans fixed on the waters edge looking for any tasty tidbits which the waves might bring along.

Millions of colorful spots ran back and forth on the mudflat. Fiddler crabs of all kinds came out of their havens to feast on the sunlight and the breeze. The males waved their oversized claws crazily as a female approached cautiously.

Down in the rivulets, mullets nibbled at the surface, drawing hundreds of circles on the water while mudskippers scurried up and down the river mangrove seedlings.

Officials from Xuan Thuy National Park said there are over 100 species of fish in the preserved area.

From the furrows underground, sand ghost shrimps contributed to the animation.

Further toward the islets, shanties on stilts over the oyster farms looked like water striders on the mudflat.

Silhouettes against the horizon, fishermen, submerged to the neck, put out their nets in the cold water. Their footprints made intersected trails on the alluvium like a piece of fine art work to be completely erased when the tide came in.

Though a preserved area, the park embraces private aquaculture farms, and, therefore, it is actually open to everyone.

Out of nowhere an emaciated woman emerged; covered from head to toe in mud. She had two different bags for two different kinds of snails on her sides; another bag for crabs in one hand, and yet another bag for sea cucumbers in the other.

She spread the catch on the path for re-sorting. Fifteen years ago, when she first walked on the wetland and stepped on huge dungeness crabs, no one picked anything tiny, she said. She walked down to the moorland, getting handfuls of mud and mixing it with the little snails so that they would be heavier. She was going to sell them by the kilogram.

Water gushed from a shrimp pond to the sea through a culvert to the rivulet, rocking the wooden boats anchored nearby, where old clothes fluttered in the salt-laden breeze. Those little boats were home to households; where members cohabited from cradle to grave. Babies were conceived and born, lulled to sleep and nurtured to maturity with the rocking of waves.

The Red River Estuary was home to several floating villages. Yet, over time, natural resources became scarcer and life harder; the fisher-folk had to leave for somewhere else, and some left the sea for good as they looked for other ways to survive.

Experts have conducted conference after conference to discuss the serious impact of global climate change on this wetland of international importance; about how the casuarinas have died out, how the mangrove seedlings could not survive the rising sea level.

Talking to the media earlier this year, the director of Xuan Thuy National Park, Nguyen Viet Cach, said the number of birds observed there had decreased by about 10 percent compared with the same period the previous year.

In May this year a man was arrested and asked to pay VND2 million (US$100) for illegally capturing 19 waders. So far, this has been the only such case. At gatherings, many local men still brag about how many gulls or storks they had shot the previous day this migration season.

There are no recent statistics on underwater species. Yet it is not unusual to see farms encroaching on the natural habitats of aquatic and semi-aquatic species and/or fishermen fishing with electric devices or even mines.

Authorities have been complaining about "the shortage of resources." At the headquarters of the park, more and more large "functional centers" are rising around the main multi-storied office building.

On a regular day, the complex was completely empty, except for the construction workers. On the weed-covered yard, dogs lay sullen, too bored to even bother to bark at intruders. The Museum of Xuan Thuy National Park was closed. There was a canoe with the logo of the park on it, perhaps meant to take visitors offshore or maybe for patrol.

Now, it rested and rusted on a trailer with flat tires.

Across the Red River, the wetlands in neighboring Thai Binh Province, once luxuriant with mangroves, is a wasteland of bare shrimp ponds.

Dusk falls gently on the mangroves, as their dark shadows crawl everywhere. More and more boats come back from the sea to take shelter at the estuary during the night. An industrious fisherman hits his bamboo oars against the metal boat to drive fish into his net for the last time before heading home to nearby Giao Thien Village.

In the eastern horizon the moon rises, pure and full like a crystal gem, striking a calm pose in the immense chill of the autumnal maritime night.

From the mangroves, owls hoot; the sobbing whoo whoo renders things more desolate and ghostly.

A lonely night heron leaves its nest, flapping its wings to fly into the silvery night.

Lingering sweet scents of seaside clerodendron flowers and of other hyacinths fills the air.

Officially, the Xuan Thuy National Park houses about 700 species of flora and 400 fauna.

How many of these actually remain?