The greatest cave on Earth can't speak, so we need to give it a voice

By Le Nguyen Thien Huong   March 1, 2018 | 05:51 pm PT
The greatest cave on Earth can't speak, so we need to give it a voice
Son Doong Cave. Photo by Urs Zihlmann
At 2-5 million years old, Son Doong was born long before humans came to existence. Let it live in harmony with humans.

I’ve been to the darkest place on Earth.

It was a trip to Son Doong Cave in Vietnam’s central province of Quang Binh. One of the people joining me on that trip was Doctor Howard Limbert, an expert from the British Cave Research Association, the man accredited with discovering the cave.

The biggest underground ecosystem on Earth has “astonished” cave experts and nature lovers around the world, according to international media.

After trekking underground for three days, we reached the darkest spot. Dr Limbert told us all to switch off our torches. “This is one of the darkest places on Earth,” he said.

I immediately felt suffocated. Darkness completely consumed us. I raised my hand in front of my face but could not see it. I looked down at my feet but couldn’t tell where I was standing. At that moment, I thought: Is this what it feels like to die? When we are still conscious but our bodies have gone. At that moment, I realized how powerless humankind is in the face of nature.

Since my junior high school years when I grew up with Jules Verne’s adventure novels, I have nurtured the dream of traveling “Around the World in 80 days,” going “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” and been especially in love with “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” I could never image that what I had dreamt of was lying right here in my own country. While I was studying in the U.S., I learned that people had found Son Doong Cave and confirmed it as the biggest “underground ecosystem" in the world.

But it was not until 2014 that I first stepped foot inside the cave. It awakened a passion for exploration that I had held for so long. Since then, the deepest and darkest places on Earth have enlightened me about the limitations of humankind.

I will never forget the image of a man old enough to be my father, standing there, shedding tears in the middle of Son Doong Cave, which he considers his second home. “I feel guilty for Son Doong. What did I do by finding it? Put it in danger?” Limbert cried.

His words motivated me. My partners and I then founded the #SaveSonDoong project to create a platform for the public to say "yes" to our call to protect the heritage that Mother Earth has given Vietnam. More than 220,000 people have already joined us.

One of the most feasible ways to preserve Son Doong is visiting it in small groups and having the awareness to protect it; exploring without harming its fragile ecosystem.

Why do people want to visit Son Doong? I guess most answers would be: “Because it’s beautiful.” But will the cave still be beautiful and valuable if we rush in with plans to boost tourism?

First of all, in terms of biology, the ecosystem in a cave is sensitive. It is completely separate from the outside world, especially for a cave that has never seen a human footstep in 2-5 million years like Son Doong. The flora and fauna system inside Son Doong has got used to an environment with little or no light. There are several species that have evolved without sight but with other senses developed in return to suit the darkness. Their nervous systems are extremely sensitive to light. If hundreds or thousands of people were to dash into it at the same time bringing light, noise and carbon dioxide (which they breathe out), it would create a sudden change and seriously threaten the ecosystem.

Secondly, in terms of geology, massive projects built near Son Doong would destroy its fragile structure. Scientists have stated that the cave “is not suitable for any large-scale constructions.” The cave is formed on the north-south fault axis of the Earth's surface. The two areas inside where natural light can reach, also the two most beautiful places, are where the ceiling started to collapse several hundred thousand years ago. The start of any construction could trigger a series of collapses, which would not only be dangerous for the cave itself but could bury thousands of visitors alive.

Finally, in terms of tourism, the breathtaking beauty we have seen is all from photos that were taken when there were only a few people inside the cave. What would that pristine, wild beauty look like if the cave was full of people? Could we still enjoy the beauty of nature surrounded by thousands of other people?

At 2-5 million years old, Son Doong was born long before humans came to existence. Nature has always been here, contemptuous, but at the same time, living in harmony with humans.

The question here is between humankind's right to enjoy something and natures' right to exist; which should be exchanged for the other? I personally think that the right to live is the most fundamental right, even for an unnamed species.

There are many big questions that need to be raised about developing tourism at Son Doong. And because Son Doong cannot speak, it is up to us to take the responsibility and think hard on these questions before making any decisions.

“Natural wonders like Son Doong and Ha Long should be preserved for our children and grandchildren,” former U.S. President Obama said when he visited Vietnam in May, 2016.

If an American can say that, why are Vietnamese people so unconcerned when we're lucky enough to have such a valuable heritage, the one and only on Earth?

Le Nguyen Thien Huong is the founder and coordinator of Save Son Doong organization (#SaveSonDoong) and admission counselor of Fulbright University Vietnam. The views expressed here are her own.

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