Cat Ba features a wide range of ecosystems, from coastal mangroves to terrestrial forests and offshore coral reefs. As a result, an incredible diversity of flora and fauna live in the area, most notably the striking Cat Ba langur (Trachypithecus poliocephalus), the second-most endangered primate in the world. Born mostly orange, these langurs develop a black coat as they age, though their cheeks, neck and the top of their head become golden-white, with hair sticking up in a point on their crown.

Neahga Leonard is the project director of the Cat Ba Langur Conservation Project. He has lived on the island since 2014 and is a leading global expert on the primate, in addition to the general environment on Cat Ba.

“Our mandate is the biodiversity conservation of the Cat Ba archipelago,” he told a gathering of Southeast Asia-based conservationists at the national park’s headquarters during a recent UNESCO-organized trip. The field excursion brought together experts from countries such as Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, both expatriate and native, working for organizations like Flora & Fauna International (FFI), UNESCO and government agencies in an effort to share knowledge and best practices between countries.

“It’s not just the Cat Ba langur,” Leonard added. “That is our focal species, and we use it as the umbrella to protect as much as we can, and the lever we can use to try and get other things done.”

There are currently 64 recorded Cat Ba langurs on the island, one of which was just born in the last few weeks. This is the only place in the world they call home. According to the conservation project’s website, up to 2,800 of these primates were present on Cat Ba in the 1960s, bu the population has been decimated by poaching in the decades since.

The youngest Cat Ba langur is held by its mother on a rocky outcropping. Photo by Neahga Leonard for the Cat Ba Langur Conservation Project.
The youngest Cat Ba langur is held by its mother on a rocky outcropping. Photo by Neahga Leonard for the Cat Ba Langur Conservation Project.

“The langurs are not in the same situation as the pandas in China, unfortunately,” Leonard told me later as we sailed past stunning karsts on an outing to see part of the langur’s natural habitat from the water. “I wish it was, but the langurs do have a certain level of national awareness here because they are the most endangered primate in Vietnam … we would really like it to be taken as a model for Vietnam as a whole, as kind of an indicator for the course of things to come.”

One of the problems, Leonard said, is that while there is some awareness of the langurs themselves, people are less concerned about their actual habitat, or the many other species that live on Cat Ba. According to a booklet produced by the Cat Ba Biosphere Reserve Authority, the island is home to 3,885 recorded species, 2,163 of which are terrestrial, while the vast majority of the rest are marine.

“There is a strong focus on the langurs, which is good, in one sense,” Leonard said. “The problem is that it’s a focus on the langurs specifically, and not about the requirements the langurs have for habitat, and if we can shift that focus more to the larger conservation picture in saying the animals need a habitat to live in, and that habitat is composed of a wide variety of other species as well … then we can get somewhere.”

The tourism factor

Workers on two government-funded boats offloaded this garbage that was collected from the waters of Lan Ha Bay. They said it didn't have a destination beyond the dock. Photo by Michael Tatarski.
Workers on two government-funded boats offloaded this garbage that was collected from the waters of Lan Ha Bay. They said it didn’t have a destination beyond the dock. Photo by Michael Tatarski.

A holistic focus on Cat Ba’s habitat is particularly important given the island’s status as a popular tourism destination.

Tourism makes up the largest industry here, and visitor numbers are increasing every year thanks to improved accessibility through the Tan Vu-Lach Huyen bridge and a booming national tourism sector that welcomed 15.5 million international arrivals in 2018, a record figure. Vietnamese are traveling more than ever as well thanks to what is, by some estimates, the world’s fastest national wealth growth. While 2.5 million domestic and foreign visitors traveled to Cat Ba last year, only 16,000 people live on the island.

The island is a draw for adventurous tourists, as there is hiking in the national park and rock climbing on some of the karsts in neighboring Lan Ha Bay. Cat Ba is also just below Ha Long Bay, a World Heritage Site and one of Vietnam’s most well-known tourist destinations. In neighboring Ha Long City, a number of large tourism developments, including an amusement park, a cable car, resorts and cruise ship docks are being built by prominent domestic real estate companies.

While the core national park is generally well-protected and a major sub-group of the langurs lives within a completely restricted sanctuary, tourists do present one major threat to langurs and other animals, whether on land or under the sea: noise. Dozens of large tour boats sail through Cat Ba’s karsts every day, some of which blast music and host rowdy booze cruises. One such floating party sailed by our boat with a group of young foreign tourists cheering and shouting, much to the evident chagrin of the assembled conservationists.

“Where we are right now, this is langur habitat,” Leonard said as we glided past a row of karsts. He said the primates tend to avoid people, but the increase in human activity here “means there’s way more to push these animals away from their sleeping sites.”

“[A]nd because they have a strong fidelity to sleeping sites and are very selective, that’s potentially a really bad thing because it reduces the habitat by an enormous amount,” Leonard said.

Irresponsible tour outfits are a further threat, and Leonard shared an anecdote about one rock-climbing company that installed climbing bolts in the middle of a langur sleep site.

Overtourism looms

Thanks in part to its extremely rugged terrain, Cat Ba has thus far been spared from the massive resort developments and attendant infrastructure that have transformed many of Vietnam’s most popular tourism destination, such as Phu Quoc and Nha Trang.

That is expected to change.

Sun Group, one of the country’s largest real estate developers, began work on a $3 billion project in 2017. According to local media, this will include hotels, three golf courses, an amusement park and a 21-kilometer-long (13-mile) cable car connecting Cat Ba’s main town to neighboring Cat Hai Island.

Cable cars are one of the company’s obsessions: they built one to the peak of Vietnam’s tallest mountain, as well as an 8-kilometer (5-mile) system on a popular southern island.

For now, there is little visible evidence of work related to the mega development, with one exception: three under-construction pylons for the cable car can be seen from the ferry. Sun Group’s website has no information related to Cat Ba, and the company did not respond to a request for comment.

Controversy surrounded this project when it was announced, as the plan originally included a cable car station within the national park. However, this aspect has since been removed. Nonetheless, concerns remain for Leonard.

“What will end up happening is a huge increase in the number of people in the area, and the big issue that I’m concerned about is the noise pollution, which in Vietnam is not really considered a kind of pollution,” he said. “But for wildlife it’s one of the most important kinds of pollution because it travels very far, is not visible, and studies have shown that the stresses induced by noise pollution last for a very long time, even if the noise is removed.”

This will impact more than just the langurs. The island is also home to the highly endangered Cat Ba tiger gecko, which a recent Science Daily article argued may go extinct before it is even fully studied. A population of macaques is present as well, but there is so much focus on the langurs that little is known about them.

Meanwhile, noise from construction and tour boats impacts marine species, as does ocean waste. Photogenic floating fish farms, which have appeared in countless Instagram posts from visitors, dump household waste into the water, and also use large quantities of wild fish to feed farmed fish.

As we docked after our cruise, I noticed two small boats displaying signs from the local government dumping trash collected from the water onto the pier: gas canisters, stovetop ovens, large chunks of Styrofoam and more.

Through an interpreter, the boat workers said they go out and pick up garbage every day, yet with just two vessels operating, the catch I saw them bring in represents a tiny fraction of the actual waste in the water. They said they did not know where this trash was processed once on shore, either, and simply left it in a pile near the shore.

Coastal threats

The issues facing Cat Ba’s coastal areas were brought into clearer relief when I was taken into the mangrove forests along the island’s western fringe. Nguyen Thi Kim Cuc, of the Mangrove Ecosystem Research Division at Vietnam National University’s Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Studies, said in an email that these mangroves are in better shape than they were two decades ago, unlike many of the island’s animal species, but problems persist.

“In terms of management, it is better than the period before the year 2000,” Cuc wrote. “But the mangrove area is still reduced compared to historic distribution, and there are fewer big trees and less biodiversity.”

These forests are vital for protecting coastal communities from storms and strong waves, which frequently threaten this part of northern Vietnam. “We face several typhoons [around Cat Ba] every year, and we know that if you have mangroves, you are safe, if you don’t have mangroves, you aren’t safe,” Cuc said.

Certain sections of western Cat Ba have actually seen new mangroves grow, but some are located within aquaculture ponds, and are therefore cut off from the broader ecosystem. These trees were no more than 1.8 to 2.4 meters (6 to 8 feet) tall, while mangroves elsewhere in Southeast Asia can be several times higher.

Port cranes on Cat Hai Island tower in the background of a functional mangrove forest on Cat Ba. Photo by Michael Tatarski.
Port cranes on Cat Hai Island tower in the background of a functional mangrove forest on Cat Ba. Photo by Michael Tatarski.

This struck Christoph Zöckler, senior biodiversity adviser for Asia at the Manfred Hermsen Stiftung in Germany, who also joined this trip. When asked how Cat Ba’s mangroves compared, he discussed their relatively small size.

“The first thing I can say is that I was a little bit disappointed when I saw the mangroves because they were very small and the area is not very wide,” he said via Skype after the visit. “But then, I have to take into consideration that we are actually quite far north as well, and they are not necessarily stunted by human impact, but by climate, weather and environmental conditions.”

Cuc added that the region’s relatively cold winters, which see temperatures fall much lower than in coastal areas of Myanmar, Thailand or southern Vietnam, limit the height of mangroves here.

She said local people now have a much better understanding of the importance of mangroves, meaning the threat of illegal logging has largely disappeared, though healthy regrowth of damaged areas takes time.

“Previously, a lot of mangrove areas were converted for roads and factories [on the mainland], and of course we faced illegal cutting and people did not care much about mangroves,” Cuc said. “Once they understood their role, they changed their minds and their actions.”

A few miles away we observed a much more functional mangrove forest. This one wasn’t cut off from the sea by fish farms, and the trees were much thicker and taller since they received nutrients from tidal flows. They were also located directly in front of a dike that shields a village from the ocean. These mangroves form another layer of protection, which is exactly the function coastal preservationists want to see.

Invisible wildlife

A mangrove forest within aquaculture ponds on Cat Ba's west coast. Photo by Michael Tatarski.
A mangrove forest within aquaculture ponds on Cat Ba’s west coast. Photo by Michael Tatarski.

While much of Cat Ba is covered by the national park and biosphere reserve, it is very difficult for a visitor to see the wildlife these areas contain.

Zöckler, who has studied migratory bird populations around the world, noted the island’s seeming lack of wild birds.

“I noticed that the void of birds is very obvious,” he said. “I’ve never seen it more obvious than in northern Vietnam. There is obvious pressure from hunting and poaching, which is evidently legal, and is so severe that there is hardly any chance for most bird species to actually settle.”

Zöckler has conducted extensive coastal research in Myanmar and nearby southern China, where he found bird populations to be much more robust.

Even the treasured langurs aren’t free of this threat, Leonard said.

“In 2015, some people from a neighboring province came in, and it looks like they killed an entire langur group plus a few other individuals,” he said. That one incident dropped their population from the mid-60s into the low 50s, and the primates are still recovering.

I didn’t expect to see any langurs on our cruise through Lan Ha Bay, which lasted from morning until midday, and we did not, but we saw no other terrestrial wildlife either. It is clear that human activity has pushed most species deep into the national park.

Cat Ba’s future

With few exceptions, stories related to tourism and industrial development in Vietnam are negative: a mountain town altered beyond recognition, an island overwhelmed by trash, a waterway killed by factory runoff. For now, Cat Ba has largely avoided these disasters, but change is at the gates, whether it’s the massive development underway in nearby cities, or direct construction such as the mysterious Sun Group resort plan.

This was my third visit to the island, and I was heartened to see that it hasn’t changed dramatically since 2011, when I first went. More hotels are under construction, but they are generally small, and unlike other fast-developing parts of Vietnam it doesn’t look like a giant building site. The big questions are whether this will still be the case in five years, and how development and conservation can co-exist.

“There is increasing realization that the reason people are coming here is because of these special things that can only be found here,” Leonard told me. “So there needs to be a balance found, and I don’t think we’re at a point yet where it’s tipped completely one way. But I do think that if the trend continues at the same pace that it is going, the development is going to outstrip the conservation side.”

He added: “I think one of the key important messages to put across is that people working in conservation aren’t against development, we know it’s going to happen, but good development done well can actually be a really great benefit to the people, the nation and also to conservation.”

Banner image: The youngest Cat Ba langur, which was recorded last week, sits with its mother atop a limestone tower, while a juvenile langur climbs nearby. Photo by Neahga Leonard for the Cat Ba Langur Conservation Project.

About the reporter: Michael Tatarski is Editor-in-Chief of the Saigoneer and a Vietnam-based freelance journalist. You can find him on Twitter at @miketatarski

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Article published by Genevieve Belmaker
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