Where Humans Fear to Tread

Paradoxically, decades of chronic warfare in disputed border zones have created de facto nature reserves. What happens when peace breaks out?

By Dan Drollette Jr.

No matter where you go or what you do in Vietnam, there are echoes of war. Go into a night spot, and you discover that the most popular chain of bars is called “Apocalypse Now.” One of the top tourist attractions is a visit to an old Viet Cong tunnel outside the former Saigon, where tourists can shoot an AK-47 automatic rifle at targets. Mixed in with these relicts of “the American War” are also reminders of the revolution against the French Empire, including concrete pillboxes along the coast roads of the central region and bullet holes in the Opera House in Hanoi. Older Vietnamese remember fighting against Japanese invaders in World War II, while younger ones can tell you about repelling a Chinese invasion in the 1980s. The twists and turns rapidly get complicated—the bottom line being that this land and its people, plants, and animals seldom saw true peace for much of the twentieth century.

But as I was to find, all that warfare had paradoxically saved much of the stunning diversity of Vietnam’s wildlife. To a certain extent, war had caused the animals to remain protected from loss of habitat, safe from hunters or trappers, and undiscovered by the West. No one was going to clear forests full of mines, hunt in a war zone, or go searching for new species near a battlefield. Constant, low-level warfare had given the animals living along the border between Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia (a region known as the Lost World) some breathing room.

This survival against the odds is counter-intuitive, paradoxical, and puzzling. But there it was—in Vietnam and other hot spots, such as the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas.

No one would argue that war is good for the environment. Rather, an accident of history, in the form of Indochina’s constant warfare in the twentieth century, gave these creatures a second chance.

But this accident of history was just that: an accident. Nothing can be taken for granted. The survival of the wildlife in Vietnam and in other disputed territories and border zones in peacetime hangs in the balance.

To understand how Vietnam’s wildlife managed to survive the war—and remain unseen for decades—I went to visit a man who had served the North Vietnamese government during the “American War.” Professor Vo Quy is the retired dean of biology at Hanoi University and former chairman of a state commission charged with protecting natural resources. He wrote the first Vietnamese-language bird guide, the two-volume Birds of Vietnam; founded the country’s first environmental research institute in 1954; and had a hand in establishing its nature reserves. He was the architect behind the “National Conservation Strategy,” which mobilized the Vietnamese people to plant nearly 400,000 acres of trees per year to make up for the loss of millions of acres of forest and farmland damaged during the war, and was later awarded the World Wildlife Fund’s Gold Medal for his work. The grandfatherly scientist was Time magazine’s “Hero of the Environment” in 2008, and they wrote of him: “He protected Vietnam’s flora and fauna from the ravages of war. Now he fears the toll of torrid economic growth.”

Fluent in five languages, the white-haired, bright-eyed, diminutive Vo Quy was at the center of a number of legends, some of which were true. Vo Quy personally lobbied Ho Chi Minh to establish Cuc Phuong in 1962 as Vietnam’s first national park; in the early 1970s, he led an expedition into a war zone to do the mammal equivalent of a bird-watching trip. Later, he studied the toxic legacy of Agent Orange. But beneath his gentle, bemused exterior, Vo Quy gives the impression of a very determined and persuasive individual. As someone who survived in the Communist government’s hierarchy for decades, he must have been a skilled political infighter as well.

Our interview took place at his Hanoi office. Antlers, skins, and animal posters covered the walls; monographs were stacked in piles on every square millimeter of flat surface; and a complete adult elephant skeleton stood in the high-ceilinged hall outside his door. An old mahogany desk and a slowly rotating ceiling fan completed the scene.

Even though he was an articulate speaker of English, we were still required to have an officially approved, Party-mandated “interpreter” at all times, as per the agreement with the people who had arranged my visa during this visit. Despite the interpreter’s presence, and the knowledge that whatever words Vo Quy uttered would be reported back to someone, Vo Quy did not appear to hold anything back and at times was quite critical of the government for being slow in putting teeth into protecting the parks and preserves he had so laboriously assembled. It may be that as the grand old man of Vietnamese biology, well known in the West and with ties back to the earliest days of the Party, Vo Quy was beyond reproach. And surprisingly, our government minder turned out to be a low-key, pleasant, and capable organizer—actually less of a problem than some corporate public-relations flacks—with the good sense to stay in the background as much as possible.

Vo Quy noted that Vietnam’s newly discovered species had survived the war partly because of the country’s sheer size. At 127,240 square miles, Vietnam has a land mass about three-quarters the size of California’s (or a little smaller than Germany’s). It also has about 2,000 miles of coastline and roughly 3,000 islands—where many species have found a refuge far away from whatever happened on the mainland. Indeed, one of the Con Dao Islands—Poulo Condore, formerly the Devil’s Island of Indochina—is now a sea turtle sanctuary; nearly 80 percent of the island’s original vegetation is still intact.

Given the country’s immensity, and for logistical reasons, only “high-value targets” were hit by the U.S. military—with much of the bombing confined to places such as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the border between North and South Vietnam, or known Viet Cong bases. Consequently, large amounts of the countryside escaped direct hits. (This is not to say that there were not humanitarian concerns as well. For example, the reservoirs serving Hanoi were never attacked, for fear of drowning large numbers of innocent civilians.)

saola Where Humans Fear to Tread

The critically endangered saola in Vietnam. AP Photo/WWF

This meant that, even though more than 850 square miles of forest were destroyed during the Second Indochina War, the vast majority of forest land was spared. Most animal habitat was far from combat areas. And the many fissures and folds in the steep terrain of wet, old-growth forest—the preferred environment of newly found rare mammals such as the saola (an animal that looks like a goat but is genetically closer to an ox)—proved difficult to bomb effectively. Vo Quy was sure that many other creatures similarly managed to escape, and he was convinced they are still out there. “The local people are always finding things that we scientists do not know about,” he said—a statement that was supported later by outsiders such as biologist George Schaller. “In Vietnam, I once ate [for dinner] a pig which had been thought extinct since 1892,” said Schaller. (Some measurements by taxonomist Colin Groves later confirmed that it was indeed the “missing” animal.)

Vietnam’s myriad caves also helped preserve wildlife. Many animals had access to such caves—usually located in narrow, deep, forgotten, jungle-covered valleys that were essentially out of the way of anything but a direct hit. With some of them big enough to swallow entire city blocks, the caves provided ample space in which to hide.

What’s more, in a bizarre twist, the peculiarities of warfare may actually have helped to protect the wildlife. Combat so preoccupied both sides that all of their resources and effort went into fighting, leaving little money for road building or development—activities that have long-term effects on habitat. Likewise, few people wanted to venture anywhere near the site of a battlefield for long afterward. It was just too risky for hunting or setting snare lines.

Many villagers are still afraid to go into the depths of bomb-strewn old battle zones, and the trees there are so full of shrapnel that they are worthless to lumber mills. The observation that low-key, steady warfare can actually be a boon to wildlife was well known to wildlife researchers (although it has to be the right kind of hostilities—where the situation is stable, such as demilitarized zones). “If you go to Afghanistan, where everyone carries an automatic rifle, that’s not very healthy for wildlife,” commented George Schaller.

Simply put, boundary areas between nations make for effective wildlife sanctuaries, as long as there are no active battles going on. Colin Groves calls this the “border effect.” Few people want to provoke trouble by going into no-man’s-land. Consequences can be dire: in the area where Laos and Vietnam converge—called the Parrot’s Beak for its shape on the map—a Vietnamese wildlife researcher was shot by Cambodian Khmer Rouge guerrillas while trying to find new species.

Meanwhile, animal life pays no attention to human-drawn political boundaries. “Vietnam shares a lot of species and a lot of habitat with Laos and with Cambodia, so a lot of these endemic animals live there, especially along the Annamese Cordillera,” says Martha Hurley of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. “They don’t care about the border.” Or, as Vo Quy put it: “Animals don’t need visas.”

The border effect may have been around for a long time, in many places right under our noses. When Lewis and Clark did their great exploration of the North American continent, they noted much more wild game in the buffers between Indian nations. Analyzing the explorers’ old journals today, researchers Paul Martin and Christine Szuter found that the border areas were avoided by the native tribes of the Lewis and Clark era. Unless they were actively going to war, these tribes deliberately avoided the boundary lands along the upper Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers that marked the edges of their respective turfs; the explorers’ notes show much larger numbers of bison, elk, deer, pronghorn antelope, and wolves in these areas.

Similarly, Joseph Dudley and his colleagues wrote in a 2002 study in Conservation Biology, “Effects of War and Civil Strife on Wildlife and Wildlife Habitats,” that no-man’s-lands have long served as de facto nature reserves. (1) One of the study’s coauthors, Andrew Plumptre, later stated that the bottom line seems to be that species bounce back when humans leave them and their habitat alone for prolonged periods. “War can be good in that it keeps people from moving into an area and settling there.”

greenbelt box Where Humans Fear to TreadOr, as Vo Quy said, “In some ways, the peace is more dangerous than war for endangered species.” The border effect shows up worldwide in unexpected places, both large and small. England, for example, is renowned for the many hedgerows that mark the boundaries of its farmers’ fields; in the mid-twentieth century, there were an estimated 500,000 miles of hedgerows. Up to ten feet wide, these strips of land between fields and pastures cumulatively make up a huge square footage of land area; the hedgerows form a wild nature reserve in the midst of an otherwise heavily domesticated island. Often overlooked, hedgerows are now seen as more than mere boundary markers: they serve as an important source of biodiversity. For that reason, there are active campaigns (such as the Hedgerow Trust) to preserve them today.

If there is indeed that much biodiversity present in these ten-foot-wide dividers between farmers’ fields, imagine what it is like in the 2.5-mile-wide, 155-mile-long demilitarized zone (DMZ) that divides the two Koreas. The zone was established in 1953 at the end of the three-year Korean War, and it has lain largely undisturbed ever since. So, while intensive industrialization and commercial agriculture have taken place elsewhere on the Korean Peninsula for more than half a century, this ribbon of land—which some have dubbed “the thin green line”—has remained untouched.

Left to its own devices, nature has made a comeback along the 38th parallel: about 20,000 migratory birds come to use this border area each year. These include the world’s largest population of endangered red-crowned cranes (Grus japonensis), which nest long-term in this no-man’s-land between 2 million soldiers from opposing armies. Cranes in general are spectacular species, as much as five feet tall, with elaborate courtship dances and memorable calls. In describing the whooping crane (Grus americana), pioneering ecologist Aldo Leopold wrote, “When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution.”

As a result of this inadvertent wildlife sanctuary, their population jumped from 300 to 800. There are also indications that the Asian black bear (Ursus thibetanus) and the Siberian musk deer (Moschus moschiferus) survive amid the tank traps, land mines, and tunnels of Korea’s demilitarized zone.

The DMZ has effectively become an unintended nature reserve where wild species could thrive—especially cranes, a cultural treasure on the Korean peninsula and a symbol of long life and good luck, said George Archibald, cofounder of the International Crane Foundation (ICF). The ICF was started in 1973 in Baraboo, Wisconsin, by Archibald and a biologist friend, Ron Sauey. Self-described as “two college kids on a farm who wanted to save a nearly extinct bird no one knew much about,” their organization now has 40 people on staff and focuses on 15 different crane species, of which 11 species are classified as threatened.

Archibald described his work in the Korean DMZ a few days after returning from his latest conservation effort there; he had left North Korea less than 30 minutes before officials announced that Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il had died. Archibald had gone there to work with biologists at the Academy of Science in Pyongyang and had come up with ideas for ensuring the long-term survival of all the different species in the DMZ. In general, any flat, arable land is very scarce in the North, leaving only about five percent of the country suitable for farming—and both cranes and people desire the same bit of land. With any kind of space being scarce in the Koreas, Archibald expects that, if the DMZ ever comes down, “It will all become a city overnight.”

So he’s trying to find ways to prepare in advance to protect the land on which the DMZ sits. For example, he hopes to create sanctuaries in Korea outside the DMZ. And the ICF has been working to bring back cranes in places such as Vietnam’s Plain of Reeds, a marshy area of the Mekong River a few hundred miles south and west of Ho Chi Minh City. After nearly disappearing during the war years, cranes are making a solid comeback there.

Ultimately, borderline conservation comes down to a life-and-death race between the forces of preservation and destruction. It says something about the dogged persistence of nature that life can survive, and sometimes even thrive, against all the odds in the most extreme environments—including the environment of the battlefield. It’s almost as if humanity had been granted a second chance to get the ecosystem right.

1. Dudley, J.P. et al. 2002. Conservation Biology, doi:10.1046/j.1523-1739.2002.00306.x.


Dan Drollette Jr. is an award-winning foreign correspondent who specializes in adventure science. His articles have appeared in Scientific American, International Wildlife, Natural History, and Cosmos and on the BBC.

This article is adapted from his recent book, Gold Rush in the Jungle: The Race to Discover and Defend the Rarest Animals of Vietnam’s “Lost World” published by the Crown Publishing Group in 2013.

A video on the making of the book can be found here.


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