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SOS Rhino : In the News : Lake place of solace in Vietnam

Lake place of solace in Vietnam


The New Zealand Herald

Waking at Bau Sau has to be one of the more peaceful experiences to be had in Vietnam, writes GRAHAM HOLLIDAY.

You'd be hard pressed to find a mention of Vietnam's Cat Tien National Park in any guidebooks. It may have opened the doors to tourism, but some places, it seems, remain off the tourist radar.

Destinations that fit comfortably on the Ho Chi Minh City-Nha Trang-Hoi An-Hue-Hanoi route are overrun by buses and cars full of eager-eyed tourists. Step off that trail just 20km or so and you might be surprised to find a tourist-free biodiversity hotspot surrounded by tropical rain forest and an abundance of wildlife.

Cat Tien National Park is 174km north of Ho Chi Minh City and 20km off the main road to Dalat. Getting there is half the fun and for the moment at least that involves hopping on a ferry to take the short jaunt over the Dong Nai river to the Park Headquarters.

There is no bridge over the river to the park's main entrance, although there are plans to build one. Such isolation, combined with steep, muddy hills and dense Rattan forest, has helped to protect the environment from destruction and it has also gone some way to help saving what the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) defines as perhaps the most endangered large mammal in the world.

Between five and eight Javan (Vietnamese) rhinos are thought to remain in one small, highly protected area of the park.

There is no chance to meet this giant of the forest as the area it inhabits is off-limits to the casual tourist. But, it isn't just rhinos that help to make this park special.

Cat Tien National Park plays host to a cornucopia of species: birds, Asian elephants and wild cats. All of which inhabit the forest surrounding the park headquarters on the banks of the Dong Nai river.

Unless you go with a guide, who knows what to look for and where to look for it, you probably won't see all the park has to offer.

Forearmed with the knowledge that rhino sightings were out of the question, elephants were extremely doubtful and leopard cats were for the lucky, the next best thing is to go in search of Siamese crocodiles at Bau Sau lake, otherwise known as Crocodile Lake, 16km from park headquarters.

Siamese crocodiles were hunted for their meat or captured and put into farms before and during the Vietnam War. The result being that Siamese crocodiles haven't been seen in the wild in Vietnam since the war.

However, December 2001 saw the reintroduction of the species in Vietnam when park authorities released 10 relatives from the original Bau Sau family into the park. These new residents were taken from farms in the Mekong Delta area and rigorously vetted via DNA testing in Australia to certify that they were indeed the genuine article and not a result of crossbreeding with their Cuban cousins which are numerous in the Mekong Delta area. A further eight were released last year and more are due to follow.

Bau Sau is deep within the forest, a two-hour trek off the main trail, passing through dense tropical woods, ferns and fungi. The deeper you go, the more the forest comes alive as the birds and animals become aware of your presence. Gibbons and langurs will call out your approach, but you'll need a keen eye or an expert guide if you are to catch a glimpse of them.

The path is clear and the trek is relatively easy although the jungle on either side is dense. During my trek I was accompanied by David Murphy, a WWF biologist from Park HQ, who stopped to point out the tell-tale gouge marks made by the paws of a sun bear - the smallest bear in the world. They are known to attack at short notice but, fortunately for trekkers, they like to rest during the day.

Bau Sau is an unexpected oasis in the jungle. The only building around the lake is the forest guard house which doubles as accommodation for visitors whenever they are staying the night. Apart from the resident forest guards, the only other regular visitors are conservationists, researchers and bird watchers who come to spot some of the rarer species that inhabit the park.

Twitchers the world over come in the hope of spotting one of the four species of pitta, four varieties of sunbird or hornbill, or the ultra rare and endemic orange-necked partridge and white-winged duck.

Easier to spot, but just as rare as the birds in South East Asia as a whole, are the Siamese crocodiles, one of which could be seen hanging in the water just below the guard house.

Murphy goes crocodile spotting once a month, after dark during the middle of the lunar month, to monitor the density of numbers.

The spotters take a row boat in a circuitous route around the lake waiting to pick up telltale red eyes in the torch light.

And so far so good, the population has taken well to their new home and numbers have increased.

The Bau Sau guards will rustle up a basic but tasty meal for you, usually consisting of fish caught from the lake, rice and water spinach.

Accommodation in the guard house is basic. You'll need to bring a hammock with you or rent one from the park HQ.

The guardhouse sleeps a maximum of eight, although some people choose to string their makeshift beds up in the forest for the night. There is no running water, only a well. The abundance of leeches during the wet season gathered from the forest trek coupled with basic living conditions can be uncomfortable. Just spare a thought for the forest guards who live there day in, day out managing the lake and protecting the wildlife from poachers.

Bau Sau lake is best seen as the sun melts over the canopies or on waking just before sunrise.

In the morning, the lake is often covered with a thin layer of mist which slowly evaporates with the sun's rays.

Osprey can be seen hunting for breakfast, and the occasional flock of ducks or great hornbills flit across the lake. While on the far side, opposite the guard house, the troops of gibbons, macaques and black shanked douc langurs make their presence known as they howl to greet the morning.

Even with the sounds of the jungle, waking at Bau Sau has to be one of the more peaceful experiences to be had in Vietnam.

In a country so densely populated and polluted by noise, Bau Sau deep within Cat Tien National Park is a welcome retreat.

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