Into Bach Ma

I sit on the corner of my hotel bed staring at my tattered field gear. My once white shirts are now a shade somewhere between clay-red and muddy brown. My green hammock is splotched with so many blood stains that it resembles some sort of macabre tie-dye Christmas decoration. It was an exhausting trip—but productive. We collected many leeches in good forest. It thrills me to no end to think that in a few months time these leeches will give us a window into the unique mammalian community living in these jungles. Over the next several posts I will be writing about this trip.

I am now in Central Vietnam working with the World Wildlife Fund. Over the coming months I will be conducting extensive fieldwork in this landscape. There are three protected areas in the Central Annamite Mountains of Vietnam. These areas cover an expanse of evergreen forest running broadly along an East—West axis: Bach Ma National Park, Quang Nam Saola Nature Reserve, and Hue Saola Nature Reserve. All areas were known in the recent past to contain Annamite endemics, including Saola, Large-antlered muntjac, Annamite dark muntjac, and Annamite striped rabbit. On this recent trip I went with colleagues from WWF and the Forest Protection Department to an extension of Bach Ma National Park. Like other places in the Central Annamites, the terrain here is steep and mountainous. It also has the distinction of being one of the wettest places in the entire country. Although the vegetation suffered extensive damage from defoliants during the American—Vietnam war and much of the forest is regenerating secondary growth, patches of primary evergreen forest remain in some of the core regions. Using satellite imagery and information from local guides we chose two areas of primary forest to survey.

Location of Hue SNR, Quang Nam SNR, and the Bach Ma extension
Location of the Hue SNR, Quang Nam SNR, and Bach Ma extension

We arrived at a small town north of Bach Ma National Park called Nam Dong and met with officials from the Forest Protection Department. Our original plan was to use motorbikes to travel to the edge of the protected area and then walk into the forest but recent rains had made the roads impassable. We therefore set out on a long walk from the town. I enjoy walking through the countryside and meeting the local people who live there. However, I am always impatient to get into the forest, and I was relieved when we finally crossed into the national park. And into the jungle. When traveling through the forests we almost always walk on small streams and this trip was no exception. The jungle vegetation can be very thick—the secondary growth in particular can be near impenetrable. The fastest way to travel is along these waterways. Fortunately the water levels were still low and the walking was easy. In 8 hours of hiking we had covered several kilometers. We made camp in a patch of dense bamboo near the stream. The next morning we woke up early and continued our hike. Here the terrain became progressively more difficult. With every step the rocks in the stream grew in size until we were eventually clambering over Volkswagen-sized boulders. (Note the three people for size reference in the photo below). And I noticed a familiar pattern as we hiked: As the going got rougher, the forest got better. We were entering pristine forest. Apart from the larger trees and multi-level closed canopy the forest had a different feel. It I had to describe that feeling, and I’m not sure that I can, I would describe it as a stepping-back-in-time sensation. We were in old growth jungle. After two more hours of hiking I felt like we were in a promising location. Exhausted from our hike, we rested for a few minutes and then, noticing that daylight was fading quickly, set about making a second and more permanent camp. This would be our base of operations for the next week. We settled in early that night. We would need all of our strength for the coming days.

Hiking along stream in Bach Ma (note three people for size reference)
Hiking along a stream in Bach Ma
Tall trees indicate primary forest
Tall trees indicate primary forest
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