Shrimp farmers make big sacrifices for wild birds

TN News

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"They have done me more harm than good," says Le Thanh Khiet, a Ca Mau Province shrimp farmer who has allowed nesting shore birds to take over his property and his life.

Khiet now spends all of his time taking care of the wild birds that chose to make his property their home.

Known locally as Tam Khiet, the man lets the birds to nest in every corner of his 16 hectares of mangrove forest.

Among them are the protected gray herons and the gray-legged pelicans, or chang be as locals usually call them, listed in the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red Book.

In 1988, he received the property from local agricultural authorities to create shrimp farms. He planted additional mangroves to prevent erosion, create shadows and filter the water with their roots.

In 2002, the mangroves began attracting birds that had been chased away by farmers who didn't want the feathers and droppings to pollute their shrimp ponds.

"Birds are good luck from the sky," Khiet said. "When they come, we have to take care of them."

He has trained his dogs not to bark at the birds or attack their young.

There are tens of thousands of birds nesting on his property.

Khiet is known to spend hours rowing through the mangroves, picking up fallen hatchlings and returning them to their nests.

He has moved his tea table from the front door to the back to watch them. He even trims the trees regularly so the birds can easily access their nests.

Khiet said he's fallen in love with the birds' plumage and calls.

He claims they don't bring him any profit. The truth is the birds have caused him all kinds of trouble.

"My shrimp farms have suffered losses because bird droppings and nesting materials pollute the water," Khiet said laughing. "My neighbors also complain that the birds destroyed their eucalyptus gardens."

"And they shit all over our roofs, we cannot drink rain water anymore."

The neighbors gripe, but the poachers and officials are a different kind of problem altogether.

"Once I was woken up in the middle of the night to the sound of the birds crying," Khiet said. "I turned on a flashlight and saw several young men with sacks trying to steal the birds and their eggs. My children and I shouted at them, only to be beaten severely."

Khiet said some thieves are armed with guns and he's afraid of getting shot someday.

The man is also hated by several officials who, during their visit to the area, asked him to "catch some birds to eat with wine." He refused, he says.

But Khiet is not the only brave bird-lover in the delta province.

Birds first came to Van Luong, also known as Nam Luong, following typhoon Linda in 1997.

At first, only, eight white egrets nested in Khiet's mangrove forest.

The number has increased sharply in the past four years.

Every day, as the sun begins to set, Luong rows his boat into the mangroves to watch the birds return after a day of searching for food.

"I've become addicted to them," he said.

The man speaks of the birds with pride: "The garden next to mine also has lots of mangroves but the birds do not go there."

He also describes the birds as his "eager" and "talkative" pets.

Luong now sleeps in a tent, in his backyard, just to be close to them.

"Sleeping here, I have a direct view of the birds and can help them if they get into trouble," he said.

Three months ago, he overslept and found two dead egrets in the morning. Then he stayed up several nights in a row until he caught the thieves, red-handed.

His neighbors have complained that he has no right to keep the wild birds to himself.

But Luong realizes that conservation is more important than popularity.

"It's unlikely that our children will have the chance to see these natural beauties, if we don't protect them as we protect ourselves," he said.

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