For many tourists from Ho Chi Minh City and beyond, the Tram Chim National Park is an increasingly popular weekend getaway where they can go through melaleuca forests on boats, enjoy the fresh air and see birds sitting on treetops and meadows near lotus swamps.
Located in the Mekong Delta province of Dong Thap, Tram Chim (literally melaleuca (and) bird) is home to 231 species of birds, including 32 protected ones, like the famed sarus crane, cormorant, and darter.
Up to 60,000 birds, mostly waterfowl, live here in the peak rainy season from June through December, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
But Tram Chim wasn’t always home to such an abundant bird population.
The park, which spreads over an area of 7,300 hectares, or about 1 percent of the size of the once extensive wetland known as the Plain of Reeds, was established in 1998 by the Vietnamese government to preserve the eco-system of the Plain.
The move came as the rapidly burgeoning population in southern Vietnam was turning most of the Plain into rice fields.
The development also worsened climatic stresses in the low-lying Mekong Delta. Lengthier droughts during the dry season from January through May was making Tram Chim’s forests prone to fire.
Though trees and grasses then grew back rapidly, the park’s officials were held responsible for the fires, no matter what the cause was.
“I am the seventh director of this park,” Nguyen Van Hung says. “Former directors had to leave due to forest fires.”
To prevent the fires, a dyke system was elevated in 2001 to help the park store large quantities of water all year round.
But this policy was soon proven to negatively impact biodiversity in the park.
“The elevated dyke system split the ecosystem here and narrowed the biodiversity,” Hoang Viet, wetlands and climate change coordinator for WWF Vietnam, said, based on a joint study by his agency and the park.
“As a result, fewer sarus cranes came to the park.”
The study pointed out that the new dyke system hampered the migration of fish while high water levels killed off melaleuca trees and eleocharis – food for the sarus crane.
“In 2008 the WWF began to work with Tram Chim officials and scientists to devise a new water management plan that mimics the historical Mekong hydrological regime,” Viet said.
Under this plan, which was a highlight of a US$195,000 project from 2008 to 2011 funded by the Coca-Cola Company to restore the habitat in Tram Chim, parts of the dyke system were lowered and water levels were monitored more closely to make water flows more natural.
“Vietnamese law doesn’t accept forest fires,” Hung, the park’s director, told the media in late February.
“But for the ecosystem of the wetland, fires don’t mean destroying everything. Indeed, after fires, some plants including eleocharis grow even better. Thus, to restore the habitat, please don’t conclude that Tram Chim (management board) is guilty if fires happen.
“We even asked the local government to allow us to burn some grass fields at certain periods and they accepted.”
In late 2013 the WWF, with funds from Coca-Cola, launched the second phase of the restoration project. In this phase, which cost $180,000, the environmental group continued to assist the park management to monitor the hydrological regime.
“Besides, we continued to let poor surrounding residents fish in limited amounts in the park and provide tourism services to improve their incomes,” Viet said.
And more birds are coming to Tram Chim.
“The number of birds living in the park during the rainy season increased from 20,000 in 2008-09 to 50,000-60,000 last year,” Viet said.
Though their numbers are still low, the elegant, red-headed sarus cranes began to return.
A joint study by Tram Chim and the WWF showed 21 cranes came to the park last year, compared with 13 in 2013.
The number of visitors is also on the rise, especially since Tram Chim entered the Ramsar list as a “wetland of international importance” in 2012.
Ramsar, an international treaty named after the city in Iran where the convention was signed in 1971, is used to honor wetlands that have maintained their ecological character through sustainable management.
Tram Chim received 60,000 visitors last year, much higher than the 9,000 in 2011.
The park management plans to offer new services like cycling and electric car tours in the near future in addition to existing ones like sightseeing tours by boat, trekking, rice harvesting, fishing, food, and accommodation.
Hung said the local government has agreed to provide VND5.5 billion ($258,000) to buy new solar or battery-powered boats to replace the current diesel ones, which are too loud and startle the birds.
Many residents in the surrounding areas are joining as boat pilots or tour guides, but Dr Vu Ngoc Long, director of the Southern Institute of Ecology, is not satisfied.
“The community here should be helped to provide tourism services that promote local culture such as homestay, local cuisine and handicrafts. This would also help locals improve their incomes,” he said.
While appreciating the WWF project’s results, Long recommended devising a more efficient water management plan to restore eleocharis fields in the park, thus attracting more sarus cranes.
“The number of sarus cranes coming to the park is still very low, compared with more than 300 in Cambodia’s Anlong Pring,” he said.
HOW TO GET THERE
Tram Chim National Park
Address: Tram Chim Town, Tam Nong District, Dong Thap Province, around 150 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City.
Tel: 067.3827 307
For direct buses from Ho Chi Minh City to Tram Chim park, visitors can call Hung Cuong Transportation Co. at 08.3955 6844. For the return leg, they can call the same company at 067.3829.468.
Or tourists can take a bus from Mien Tay Bus Station in HCMC to Cao Lanh Town in Dong Thap Province. From Cao Lanh, take another bus to go another 38 kilometers to reach Tram Chim park.