Endangered crane absent from Vietnam's Ramsar site

By Hoang Nam   December 15, 2020 | 05:00 am PT
Losing their natural habitat and food source, red-crowned cranes no longer call a national park in Vietnam's Mekong Delta home.

For three decades, Tram Chim National Park in the reed fields of Dong Thap Muoi in Dong Thap Province has been famous as a natural habitat for the large East Asian red-crowned crane, among the rarest in the world and classified "endangered" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species.

The cranes usually descend on the park from December to May, southern Vietnam's dry season, to forage and mate prior to the onset of rainy, flood-prone weather.

But in recent years, the story has changed.

As reported by the World Wide Fund for Nature Vietnam, if there were more than 1,000 red-crowned cranes arriving at the park in 1998, the figure had dropped to just 21 in 2015, 14 in 2016, nine in 2017, and 11 each in 2018 and last year.

During this year’s dry season, no cranes were spotted in the park.

How it all started

Nguyen Hoang Minh Hai, head of science and international cooperation at the park, said it is unclear when red-crowned cranes first arrived at the park and nearby town, after which it is named.

What is known for sure is that by 1986, the local flock had increased to more than 1,000 birds a year.

Spread over 7,500 hectares (18,532 acres), the park is divided into five different zones, with one supplying the red-crowned cranes with food.

A corner of Tram Chim National Park in Mekong Deltas Dong Thap Province, November 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Nam

A corner of Tram Chim National Park in Mekong Delta's Dong Thap Province, November 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Nam.

Aside from the cranes, the park, established in 1998, also hosts 230 bird species, 130 fish species, and 130 plant species.

In 2012, it was recognized by Ramsar Convention as a wetland of international importance, the fourth in Vietnam, and 2,000th in the world. The convention is an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for national action and international cooperation in the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources.

Why it falls apart

According to National Geographic, the red-crowned crane is the second-rarest crane in the world - second only to the whooping crane in North America.

It is an endangered species, with only 1,830 adults in the world and dropping, the most obvious reason being loss of habitat since their wetland breeding grounds are shrinking and unable to sustain the species, it said.

Hai at the park said red-crowned cranes feed on sources left over after flooding season, including snails, fish, crabs, rats and especially, water chestnuts, an aquatic vegetable that grows in marshes, under water, and in the mud.

Cranes usually come to mate in Vietnam before relocating to Cambodia to give birth. They are found in families of three-four members, with the young normally leaving their parents at the age of one or 1.5 to live until 40, he added.

But in recent years, annual flooding of Vietnam's Mekong Delta has not occurred. Normally, floods would hit in late July or early August and remain until November or even later to bless the region with extraordinary fertility as they typically deposit silt from upstream areas.

Besides, local farmers have been encroaching on parkland to cultivate rice, reducing the availability of water chestnuts.

Nguyen Hoai Bao, deputy director of the Center for Wetland Studies at the University of Science at Vietnam National University HCMC, said the number of red-crowned cranes in the downstream area of Vietnam and Cambodia has dropped dramatically in recent years.

Red-crowned cranes at the Anlung Pring Sarus Crane Sanctuary, Cambodia in 2015. Photo by Nguyen Cong Toai

Red-crowned cranes at Anlung Pring Sarus Crane Sanctuary, Cambodia, 2015. Photo by Nguyen Cong Toai.

According to the International Crane Foundation (ICF), there were around 1,100 cranes in this area back in 1990, with the flock remaining at around 900 birds in 2002 before dropping to around 850 in 2013.

From 2014 to 2019, it fell by 72 percent to just 234, and is estimated at only 179 this year.

In Vietnam, there has been no cranes stopping by so far this year, with only seven spotted passing over southern Kien Giang Province.

Bao of Wetland Studies Department said aside from the lack of food sources, losing their breeding habitat is another reason for the absence of red-crowned cranes in Vietnam. Dry dipterocarp forests where they give birth have also been entirely destroyed in northeast Cambodia.

Meanwhile, natural wetlands in the Mekong Delta and the area around Cambodia's Lake Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater body in Southeast Asia, have all been harnessed to serve agriculture or related development, he said.

Multi-crop rice cultivation, with three crops per year instead of just two as in the past two decades, dramatic changes in hydrological regimes and overuse of chemicals for agricultural purposes have disrupted the ecosystem, giving cranes no chance to thrive, he said, adding improper management of the sanctuary is another reason behind the disappearance of cranes.

In other countries like Myanmar, thanks to adequate development of agriculture in Ayeyarwady River Delta with just one or two crops of rice per year, red-crowned cranes have in recent years made this region a new home. Last year, a population of about 400 cranes was detected living in the area, according to ICF.

In Thailand, red-crowned cranes were declared extinct in the 1980s but in 2011, the nation launched a project to breed them on a large scale for release back into nature. Thanks to this project, around 100 red-crowned cranes are now present in the country and able to breed.

Bao said conservation of the crane in Vietnam has entered a fragile stage, but that centers could still change their approach to proper ecosystem management.

"In case red-crowned cranes are to become extinct in the wild of Vietnam, it is important to learn from experiences in recreating habitats like what Thailand had done," he stressed.

Nguyen Van Nieu, 70, residing all his life near Tram Chim National Park, said he is no expert and that there is nothing he could say to predict the future of red-crowned cranes here.

A soldier more than 40 years ago, he recalled that he and his comrades had once got confused one early morning when encountering thousands of red-crowned cranes, which normally stand five feet tall, has a wingspan of up to eight feet, and weighs from seven to 15 kilograms. That day, he and the others had almost lost their mind, thinking they had come face to face with enemy troops.

These days, as a local resident, Nieu said he knows one thing for sure, which is that "everything is changing for the worse," and that native Mekong Delta species are becoming increasingly extinct.

But he still pins his hopes on the possibility that "in the next five or ten years, my grandchildren could once again see flocks of red-crowned cranes return to Tram Chim to forage on water chestnuts, instead of learning about what had once happened here from these cranes," he said, waving at an embroidery made by his wife, of a crane family flying up.

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