A saola, a bovine-like creature that lives in the forests of central Vietnam. Photo: WWF

In the heart of Indochina, rising above the coast of central Vietnam and spilling across the border into southern Laos, exists an intricate ecosystem teeming with extraordinary biodiversity, like nowhere else on Earth.

The Central Annamites mountain range has always held a special place in my heart as a proud local from Hue, Vietnam. After growing up near this sweeping range with the forest as my home, my career pathway led me to conservation, a profession that gripped my very existence with purpose, passion and an ongoing quest to protect some of these last remaining wild places on Earth.

Little did I know how central these efforts would come to be, not only to the health of forests and wildlife, but for the continued sustainability and health of the communities that depend on them.

My quest first brought me to Bach Ma National Park in 1996, where I worked for several years as a biodiversity researcher, tasked with protecting some of the unique species in the area. A small bovine-like creature had been injured and was being held at the park’s headquarters, and a researcher was needed to nurse it back to health and release it. But sadly the baby mammal, known as a saola, died because of inexperienced care, which I regretfully acknowledged.

Considering it my fault from the moment that creature died and also realizing the fragility of evolution and existence, I was forever committed to protecting the landscape and species of the Central Annamites, re-wilding the saola, and so many other species that once called this vast forest landscape home and now on the brink of extinction.

In 2010, I discovered an endemic species of gibbon deep in these ancient forests and high mountain peaks. At the time, only 200 individuals remained and were at high risk of extinction. 

I spent three years researching these gibbons, almost half of which was spent living in the forest, collecting data, recording gibbon calls and collecting fecal samples for DNA analysis early in the mornings after their busy, chatty, breakfast social hour. At times, I felt like a madman, entrenched in my research, enduring the brutality of mosquitoes and leeches, all to prove that this in fact was a new species of gibbon, endemic to the Central Annamites.

My hard work paid off. The analysis indeed found my research subjects to be a new species, which I was overjoyed to name as the northern yellow-cheeked hibbon (Nomascus annamensis Thinh et al). This thrilling discovery was recognized and published in peer journals such as Evolution Biology, the American Journal of Primatology, and the Journal of Primatology, not only showcasing Vietnam and Indochina’s biodiversity, but also adding another name to the list of endangered species that need protection and conservation.

A female northern yellow-cheeked gibbon. Photo: WWF

Thanks to this discovery, the local authority has focused on protecting these endemic primates, partnering with international and national organizations working on species and habitat conservation in the area to this day.

These vivid experiences in the forest gave me a profound understanding of the interconnectedness that biodiversity has with our everyday lives and communities. This ecosystem in Vietnam is part of a wider landscape – an amazing patchwork of communities, wildlife, and forests that make up the Central Annamites Landscape, shared by Laos and Vietnam. Communities are closely connected to nature and, for many, their livelihoods depend directly on healthy, functioning forests and waterways. 

But the landscape faces myriad threats to its forests and wildlife. Wire snares set by poachers supplying the illegal wildlife trade indiscriminately catch any animal unlucky enough to encounter them, while forests are under constant pressure from expanding agricultural lands and infrastructure development.

While the evidence is not yet conclusive as to where different viruses originate, this rampant habitat loss and encroachment, coupled with a systematic siphoning of wildlife into illegal and unregulated wildlife markets, in-country and beyond our borders, has been found to be a potential public health risk.

This article is being published on April 22, Earth Day. It’s an appropriate time to recognize that human health can be linked to the health of the land. As forested areas decrease and infrastructure and cities grow exponentially throughout the world, the health of ecosystems both natural and urban can be put at risk, as we have seen with the extreme loss of biodiversity across the globe and the rise of pandemics.

The onslaught of Covid-19 has rocked the global economy, devastated infrastructure and supply chains and forced the world into an unprecedented standstill to cope with the outbreak. Preventing these outbreaks from occurring in the future and protecting the public from increased exposure to zoonotic diseases will require monumental shifts in society, businesses and in government behavior, and mainstream modes of operation and practices.

What gives me hope for the future of these forests in the Central Annamites is the innovative and exciting work happening there every day, and the local government partnerships and people on the frontlines making it happen. The communities living in this landscape understand best the importance of living harmoniously with nature. 

Soukaseum Malychansy, project officer for WWF-Laos, works directly with Lao communities in the landscape that rely on forests. “Life in the Central Annamites is linked to biodiversity through income, food, and medicine. Together with these communities, we are working to conserve forests to ensure that livelihoods and biodiversity can both be sustained.”

Van Cong Nhat, forest guard team leader for WWF-Vietnam, spends endless hours scouring the forest for snares, dismantling them by the hundreds to protect wildlife. “When I first started as a forest guard seven years ago, I didn’t understand the importance of my work, but now I see the true value in my job. Snares are often set in the forest to trap animals for food or sale in markets. We need to patrol the forest and remove snares to reduce negative impacts to the natural forest so that tigers, bears or saola can come back to their home.”

Forest guard teams have removed more than 100,000 snares in Quang Nam and Thua Thien Hue Saola Nature Reserve over the past several years, saving countless animals from the illegal wildlife trade and keeping them in nature where they belong.

In addition to persistent snare removal, WWF is monitoring biodiversity through various methods, including setting camera traps, recording primate calls and collecting leech samples, all to gain a better understanding of the wildlife that we are working to protect, safeguarding more sustainable forest management in the area for years to come.

But protecting forests doesn’t just protect biodiversity, it also protects important sources of natural resources and income for local people.

“A big part of our sustainable forestry work in the landscape involves working with communities that directly rely on forests for their livelihoods, whether it’s sustainable forest plantations or harvesting sustainable forest products from natural forests,” said Le Viet Tam, forest program manager for WWF-Greater Mekong. “These communities understand that we need to find a balance with nature – we need healthy ecosystems to keep our communities healthy as well.”

We need to redefine our relationship with nature and realize the value that forests bring to our lives, striving for reconnection. Not only do they provide such critical support systems for life, but they can also provide the antibodies, the antivenins, and the anti-viruses we need for our continued survival. 

We’re all intertwined with nature, which can be to our benefit, or to our detriment, depending on how this relationship is managed. Working with communities in the forests of the Central Annamites generates fresh hope and the drive to continue reconnecting this fragmented ecosystem; to bring back the wild spirits of the forests to a landscape that knows no boundaries, where humans can live sustainably alongside nature.

This is a profound moment to redefine and reimagine our own success and futures, to realize a New Deal for Nature and People, in favor of a more sustainable livelihood for all.

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Van Ngoc Thinh

Dr Van Ngoc Thinh is country director, WWF-Vietnam.