Nguyen Van S is near tears as he recalls the day when hundreds of thuy tung (Glyptostrobus Pensilis or water pine) disappeared from his property.
"I owned many," he said.
Van S said a massive stand of the trees had remained at the bottom of the lake after they were cut down to make way for an irrigation project back in the 1980s.
He had fished each one of the trees out of the nearby Ea Ral irrigation lake, some years ago and hauled them back to his property. He built fences from the prized wood and used them as posts for his pepper vines.
Then one night, two years ago, the fences vanished from his land in Ea Hleo District in the Central Highlands province of Dak Lak,
"I thought someone had stolen my fence of thuy tung for firewood," said Van S, who claims that he is willing to offer free firewood to those in need.
A few days later, Van S woke up to discover his pepper posts had also been stolen.
"It was strange and weird, but I still thought that maybe the thieves needed firewood," said Van S, who was shocked to learn that some believe the wood can cure cancer. He claims that someone offered him US$7,000 per cubic meter for his remaining stock.
The species is now nearly extinct in the wild, due to excessive commercial exploitation, and remains prized for its rot resistance, pleasant odor and brilliant color.
Nguyen Van Kiem, head of the province's Krong Nang District Forestry Protection Office said that trouble began on June 5, 2009.
The hosts of a TV game show Chiec non ky dieu (The magical cone) claimed that the plant could be used to treat cancer and other diseases.
THE WATER PINE
Thuy tung can grow to a height of 30 meters and have a trunk diameter of more than one meter. The leaves are deciduous and spirally arranged, whereas the cones are green, pear-shaped and 2-3 cm long.
It is native to subtropical southeastern China, from Fujian west to southeast Yunnan, and northern Vietnam.
The trees typically grow along river banks, ponds and swamps, and in water up to 60 cm deep.
Like the related genus Taxodium, it produces 'cypress knees' when in shallow water, which are believed to help transport oxygen to its roots. These "knees" are known to help stabilize shorelines by reducing soil erosion.
Following that broadcast, he says, hundreds of locals rushed into the Trap Ksor forest to seize the precious wood.
"Some even came to beg us for some bark to prepare cancer medicine for their sick relatives," Kiem said.
Ea Hleo District is suffering a similar mania, said Kiem. Hundreds of people arrive at Ea Ral Lake, every day, carrying different kinds of tools and machines. They're all looking to dredge the lake for tree trunks that have been underwater for decades now.
Though rumors about thuy tung's effect on cancer and its rumored value as an insect repellant, have yet to be proved, its resistance to decay has made it a prized medium for craftsmen and sculptors.
At the moment, there are less than 300 trees left the wild in Vietnam.
According to the Dak Lak Department of Forestry Protection, the species exists only a few remote districts in the province.
Since then, they've established a 49-ha preserve in Ea Ral to protect 270 trees (2008 statistics) and a 61.6 ha reserve in Trap Ksor containing 28 trees (also 2008 statistics).
"The three of us take turns keeping an eye on the remaining 27 trees, 24 hours a day," said Dinh Tien Huu, one of three rangers stationed at the Ea Ho Forestry Protection Station. "To tell you the truth, we are not afraid of poachers because the trees are all hollow, and wouldn't bring in much money."
At Ea Ral Station (near the namesake irrigation lake), seven rangers use trained dogs to patrol the woods. But poachers still manage to snag trees.
After talking to his boss over the phone Trinh Xuan Truyen, the station's sub-chief, said that he had no idea how many trees were left. But Truyen affirmed that every time a tree is stolen, his team knows which one was taken.
According to an anonymous source, at present, around 200 trees remain in the preserve.
In May, the local government has confiscated more than 30 cubic meters of thuy tung from a house in Ea Ral commune.
But the wood remains easily available, according to a local woman who trades thuy tung.
Fresh cut thuy tung timber and handicrafts carved from the wood are publicly advertised online.
Handicrafts shops in both Ho Chi Minh City and outside the province (especially in tourist spots) sell the wood more discreetly, she said.
"Due to the strict government policies, an increasing number of people have sought out the wood in the past two years," the trader said. "Thuy tung products are seven or eight times more expensive."
A set of three thuy tung vases sold for $175, whereas a 30cm Buddha statuette was priced at $350, at a shop in Gia Lai airport.
According to a 2007 study conducted by scientists at the Tay Nguyen Institute of Scientific and Technical Forestry, the tree density in the two Dak Lak preserves is too sparse for the trees to pollinate one another.
That same year, the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry at the University in Da Lat failed to introduce cultivated thuy tung saplings into the wild.