In the past fifty years, Vietnam has grappled with rampant logging and deforestation.
Efforts to halt logging and plant trees (whether in plantations or true forests) has succeeded in greening certain denuded portions of Vietnam.
"If we take the national figure into account, we can see that the forest coverage has increased, from the mid-1990s to now," said Pham Manh Cuong, of the Vietnam Administration of Forestry.
Cuong, who directs the country's United Nations' Reducing Emission from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD) program noted that reforestation has not seen equal success in every province.
"Reforestation is strong in the northern and coastal provinces," he noted. "But illegal logging and timber poaching is quite severe in the Central Highlands and Yok Don National Park, in particular."
Last week, Thanh Nien ventured to Dak Lak Province and encountered a ravaged 20-hectare patch of Yok Don National Park.
Twenty three species of protected fragrant-timber trees had been cut down there"”stumps and branches littered the clearing.
One century-old tree had been felled and cut up into several chunks.
Park rangers said they'd scared off the poachers before they could cart off the roughly eight cubic meters of precious timber"”each of which could net roughly VND40 million (US$1,917) on the black market.
One ranger estimated that illegal loggers had stolen around 100 cubic meters of wood from the forest.
The Yok Don National Park Management Board stated that ranger teams have recorded hundreds of instances of timber poaching and seized more than 500 cubic meters of felled trees during the first three months of this year.
The board maintains that these figures represent a small percentage of the actual destruction in the forest, where many varieties of precious woods face over-exploitation in the very place where they are supposed to be protected.
The park was formed in 1991 to protect 582 square meters of khá»™p (dry dipterocarp forest). Yok Don borders the Mondulkiri Protected Forest in Cambodia, and part of one of the largest protected forest complexes in Southeast Asia.
A mosaic of deciduous and semi-evergreen (mixed deciduous) trees dominate the park, which includes smaller areas of evergreens, particularly on hilltops and along watercourses. 474 vascular plant species have been documented in the park, according to the World Wild Fund for Nature.
Shockingly, the spots where the trees were cut down are only 20-100 meters away from the paths that the rangers regularly patrol.
Smoke rises in curls through the trees from charred stumps and, in some places, stacks of felled trees have been heaped into pyres and burned to ashes.
"We told the rangers to burn the [detritus] to clean up the mess," said Nguyen Huy Hai, chief of the Drang Phok Forest Protection Station.
Patches of denuded forest can be found all throughout the vast park.
"It's not rangers who keep an eye on loggers anymore," Hai said. "Now it's the other way around"”the loggers watch the rangers' every move. If the rangers change their shifts and stay away from their stations for any length of time, the loggers rush into the forests right away."
He added that they had failed to apprehend any suspects during the past couple of months, even as the poaching continues.
The latest incident occurred on April 4, when rangers patrolling the 421 Sub-Area came upon a group of loggers cutting down a pair of trees.
The men fled into the forest, leaving behind their quarry and a pair of motorbikes.
Hai said the rangers had reported the logging situation to the park management board, but they had yet to receive any further information.
Truong Van Truong, director of the Yok Don National Park, blamed the rampant logging on staff shortages.
Yok Don consists of 115,000 hectares of woodland"”which works out to be 700 hectares (about 2.7 square miles) per ranger.
He added that the stripped terrain has made it increasingly easy for loggers to penetrate into the park.
The local authorities in surrounding areas have failed to coordinate a response to the problem, he said.
The Yok Don National Park is considered one of the most bio-diverse places in Vietnam and an important habitat for Indochinese Tigers, Leopards, Asian Elephants and Gaur.
Cuong, of REDD, said that the UN has not established a reforestation effort in the park, yet.
"The government of Vietnam is going to implement a policy that could provide additional [financial incentives] to forest managers and local residents to protect the forest," he said.