Vietnam is home to more than 50,000 species of plants and animals and is considered one of the top biodiversity hotspots in the world. This is helped along by its varied elevations, its moisture, and rain shadow effect. To help scientists better understand and manage the species in this country teeming with life, we’re expanding an existing program.
For more than a decade, Greater Good Charities’ Madrean Discovery Expeditions has been surveying the Madrean Archipelago, which stretches from New Mexico and Arizona into Mexico. The Sky Islands, as they’re also called, host a wide range of plant and animal life, including more than half of the birds in North America. So far, more than 23 Sky Island sites have been surveyed, with more than 60,000 database records of species processed. The program plans to continue surveying the area, with another 34 distinct mountain groups remaining, but now, it’s also broadening its scope with global survey work.
In 2023, Global Discovery Expeditions, the rebranded Madrean Discovery Expeditions, is heading outside of its prior Southwest focus area. The first expedition will be to Vietnam, specifically the Sao La Nature Reserve within the He province. The reserve is located on a northern flank of mountains that are part of the Annamite Mountain chain and is considered a Key Biodiversity Area. The trip has been organized in partnership with Vietnamese conservation organization Wildlife at Risk, with whom Greater Good Charities has worked to help trafficked pangolins in recent years.
The expedition will last eight to 10 days and is scheduled for late June. There will be about a dozen scientists in the group, from a broad range of specialties, with the goal of adding more than 1,000 additional observations and records to the Global Discovery Expeditions database. This information will then be available to scientists and conservationists.
Among the scientists signed up for this trip is Dr. Robert Wayne Van Devender, a herpetologist and retired Appalachian State University professor who has been doing field work in Vietnam for more than 20 years.
He says, “In 2001, a friend of mine was doing a Fulbright in Vietnam, and he sent an e-mail saying, ‘Hey, would you like to come over and help me just do some field work in the park here in Vietnam? I’ll send you the tickets,’ and I said, ‘Duh.’
“And so we started picking around in Southeast Asia. There were three of us. And it’s not always easy to say that the southeastern US herpetologist can go to Southeast Asia and know what they’re looking at or what’s safe to look at or pick up, or anything like that. But we had a good time, and so it became a continuing adventure doing surveys at Cat Tien National Park. Skip forward almost 10 years and App State, where I was teaching, allowed us to take classes over there, which was fun.”
Not long after retiring from his job as a professor, Dr. Van Devender joined up with Wildlife at Risk to do more trips. During these trips, the team has worked to create lists of species for baseline information in poorly known parks or places that could become parks. He says this has been right up his alley, as he likes to catch things, photograph them, and sometimes prepare them for study.
As a herpetologist, his focus may be on reptiles and amphibians, but he says he’s an “equal opportunity harasser” who will gladly document plants, insects, and any mammals that come around. He’s also quite interested in the snails found in Vietnam.
He says, “The land snails have been particularly fascinating to me, as well, because Vietnam has in the neighborhood of 1,000 species of land snails, which is two times the number in the entire United States. So it’s truly diverse, and they range in size from one that was recently named for me that’s less than a millimeter, to the giant African snail and really great big, beautiful things. So my goal is to certainly collect the representative sample of the species of snails in these regions and transfer those to the university in Hanoi.”
The biodiversity extends far from just snails, however. World Wildlife Fund says Vietnam is home to 16% of the world’s plant and animal species and features a wide range of landscapes, from mountain ranges and tropical rainforests to mangroves and coasts. These landscapes have also been identified as being part of the Global 200 ecoregions, the world’s most biologically important areas to conserve for future generations.
Dr. Van Devender says, “The number of species of amphibians or reptiles increases dramatically as you move towards the tropical regions, and so, Vietnam being tropical, it’s pretty high on the species number curve. Wet places are usually more diverse than dry places, and Vietnam is in a monsoon area, so it’s got lots of rainfall. So that’s good, certainly for the amphibians.
“Topographic relief also can give a boost to biodiversity, and there’s several mountain chains leading down the peninsula that includes Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. And in the north, that extends all the way into the Himalayas. But there’s a transverse mountain range, or a separate mountain range in the middle, and then there’s some hills in the south. So, the changes in elevation and rain shadow effects and all of that stuff helps to increase the number of potential niches for different kinds of creatures.”
He adds that in today’s world, natural habitat is declining, and increasing climate change is contributing to more uncertainty, but the more things we can protect, the likelier there will be something left for future generations to enjoy.
If you’d like to help this upcoming expedition learn more about these important areas, and the species within them, click below!