Devon conservationists head East

Published: 2 January 2018

Devon conservationists head East

Landslides, giant spiders and the occasional unexploded bomb left over from the Vietnam war were just some of the challenges facing experts from a Devon-based charity on a recent trip.

The three, from the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust, the charity that runs Paignton Zoo, Living Coasts in Torquay and Newquay Zoo in Cornwall, travelled to Vietnam to build on existing links with charities and NGOs in the country and to look at finding more ways of working together.

Giles Palmer, Curator of Plants and Gardens at Paignton Zoo, Jo Gregson, Curator of Birds and Stewart Muir, the Trust’s Director of Living Collections, spent three weeks in the country. Their visit followed that of Paignton Zoo Curator of Lower Vertebrates & Invertebrates, Luke Harding, who was part of a team searching for threatened amphibian species.

Of particular interest to the three was a project to conserve the Edward’s pheasant, a Critically Endangered bird that may now be extinct in the wild, but which Paignton Zoo has bred. They also had meetings with Non-Government Organisations such as Fauna & Flora International, who lead on tree conservation in the country, the World Land Trust, Save Vietnam’s Wildlife and representatives from national parks.

Horticulturalist Giles explained: “We jointly discussed plants, birds and mammals with different organisations. But the trip was really about joined-up conservation, about taking a holistic approach. So many species are threatened in the wild because of habitat loss. With the Edward’s pheasant, for example, we don’t have a clear understanding of the ecosystem of which they are part, the plants they need to survive.”

Stewart Muir has been involved in conservation in Vietnam for years. “It’s been very important for me, over the many years that I have worked with the Carnivore and Pangolin Project – which pre-dates Save Vietnam’s Wildlife - to make regular trips as I know that this means a great deal to project staff. As well as being a donor and supporter, being able to thank them first hand and understand their work makes it more personal.

“It also gives me a greater understanding of the problems facing wildlife in Vietnam. Being able to meet the staff from the Edward’s Pheasant Recovery Project in person reinforced our commitment and supported Jo’s efforts. Giles gained a great understanding of the plant conservation issues - of which there are many. At present, we do not have an overseas plant-based project. As Paignton Zoo is also a listed botanical garden, I feel that this is important, and building capacity in a country where we already have a presence and an infra-structure makes sense strategically.”

They were impressed by how much Save Vietnam’s Wildlife has achieved considering that it was only founded in 2014. Stewart and bird expert Jo got a clearer understanding of the Edward’s pheasant project and discussed the next phase - building breeding aviaries for the birds. Giles had face-to-face meetings with senior staff from Flora & Fauna International and botanical staff from Cuc Phuong National Park, Vietnam’s first national park, established in 1962.

Somewhat surprisingly, the highlight of the trip for Stewart involved people rather than wildlife. “When we were in Cuc Phuong, I took a walk one morning by myself and came across a group of infant school children having an introduction to the forest from Save Vietnam’s Wildlife staff. The children were enthralled as it was their first trip into nature from the city of Hanoi. They were wide-eyed with excitement. It reinforced for me that, from very humble beginnings, we now have an excellent education programme to complement the species conservation work. Seeing the joy on those children’s faces gave me hope for the future.”

Stewart recalls one overnight stop with less warmth: “The overnight accommodation in the rangers’ station had no electricity and no doors but it did have cockroaches and running water - across the floor. We were all a little shocked. However, the rangers brought home-brewed rice wine and I spent the night drinking with them, sitting on a bench, which was a better option than trying to sleep. Like many things in life, it was very funny… afterwards!”

Giles added: “It was supposed to be the dry season but it rained a lot. There were some very large spiders and some even larger snakes… The funniest thing was probably the expressions on our faces when we reached the forest base camp soaking wet, and realised there was no electric and no bedding. Jo had to clear my slatted wooden bed of cockroaches!”

They encountered a landslide across the road that they had to clear before they could get their vehicle through. More seriously, there were places where they were told not to wander off the track because of the danger of unexploded bombs left over from the Vietnam War, and they travelled close to areas where the natural habitat is still suffering from the effects of the defoliant Agent Orange.

Giles set out with three aims for the trip. “To meet with Fauna Flora International’s Vietnam team to discuss their involvement with the Global Tree Campaign; to visit national parks and forest reserves to get an idea of the topography, landscape and culture; and to see first-hand what it would be like to be part of an in-situ programme in rural Vietnam.
“I’d been struggling to make much progress via email, but just two days into the trip and we were on first-name terms with key staff involved with the Global Tree Campaign - Josh Kempinski is FFI Vietnam Country Director and Haon Van Lam is very hands on with the GTC in Ha Giang province. I’d been trying to establish a link there for 18 months. I now have a much clearer understanding of the progress they have made and areas where support is still needed.”
The best moment for Giles was simple. “Honestly, just being in the rainforest is one of the greatest experiences of my life. In terms of plants then seeing cycads (slow-growing and long-lived tropical plants often mistaken for palms or ferns that have hardly changed since the Jurassic) in the wild is hard to beat. Also, the Cyathea (tree ferns) dotted throughout Khe Nuoc Trong Forest. Oh, and sampling the many different rice wines we were offered…”

Jo recalls looking for birds at dawn from a small raft and trekking through dense forest with low clouds covering the tops of the trees and constant rain. “There was so much water we discarded our hiking boots for plastic sandals!”

The trip was hard but without doubt worthwhile for the trio. Stewart: “I cannot express strongly enough the importance of these face-to-face relationships with the people we are supporting. It gives us a clear understanding of the issues faced in-country and means a great deal to the people we work with that we make the effort to visit them and demonstrate our personal interest.

“We are very happy to continue to support Save Vietnam’s Wildlife and the Edward’s Pheasant project will certainly become a reality in the coming year. Giles has already received feedback from the people he spoke to and we will discuss the best way to give our technical support once a specific project has been identified.”

Jo has some positive thoughts on the Edwards pheasant project: “It would be of good practical use if we sent an experienced keeper to work with them on the aviary building.” Their visit to Xuan Thuy National Park also got her thinking. “They are developing eco-tourism – it’s government backed and shows a huge amount of promise and good sense. It offers potential for the research of bird migrations and could be an opportunity for Living Coasts to build a new mangrove project.”

Giles also has a plan: “I now need to talk to the Global Tree Campaign and discuss in detail the suggestions that Lam and I came up with. Dependant on his advice, I will then draw up a proposal for my colleagues to consider.” The trip was a clear demonstration of the way in which money raised by the charity zoos from tourists and visitors is turned into direct, practical, hands-on conservation.

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