Vietnam: A Natural History

Eleanor Jane Sterling, Martha Maud Hurley + Le Duc Minh

illustrated by Joyce A. Powzyk
Yale University Press 2006
A book review by Danny Yee © 2009
Vietnam: A Natural History is a broad survey of Vietnam's biogeography, ecology, flora and fauna, and biodiversity and its conservation.

The presentation is scholarly but accessible, with plenty of general background and context provided. Twenty boxes, some by additional contributors, focus on specific topics and break up the text. Maps, satellite imagery and photographs of landscapes help with visualisation of the geography. And Powzyk's beautiful colour drawings bring some of the more distinctive plants and animals to life.

A brief history of Vietnam describes the human context and a biogeographical overview the physical one. A survey of environments then covers the key plant communities: lowland evergreen, semi-evergreen, deciduous dipterocarp, montane, limestone, mangrove and freshwater swamp forests, savanna, and seasonally inundated savannas and grasslands.

"Limestone formations harbor a larger number of species per unit area compared with other vegetative communities. Many of these are endemic, some known only from a single hill. ...
Among the unusual species found on Vietnam's karsts is the Golden Vietnamese Cypress (Xanthocyparis vietnamensis). Described from limestone ridges in the Bat Dai Son Mountains of Ha Giang Province in 2005, ...
Vegetation over limestone passes through clear transitions of structure and composition with increasing altitude, much as Vietnam's other forests do. ..."

An overview of Vietnam's fauna is followed by three chapters that look at the environments and organisms of northern, central, and southern Vietnam in more detail. (Preparing for a visit to the Mekong Delta, I read only the third of these chapters.) The general biology and worldwide and Southeast Asian taxonomy of groups is covered, as background to the Vietnamese species. There is considerable detail in this, but no attempt to provide a field guide. It's not a travel guide, either, though there are some details about specific locations and advice on places for viewing wildlife.

Here are some extracts from the two and a half pages on the Sarus Crane:

"The Sarus Crane is the tallest flying bird in the world; adults can stand almost 6 feet (1.75 m) tall with a nearly 10-foot (3 m) wingspan. ...
The Sarus Crane's most distinctive behavior is its elaborate dance displays and trumpeting duets. ...
... Monogamy has shaped both their morphology (the lack of variation between the sexes) and behavior (unison calls) and is in turn related to their ecology, longevity, and requirements for successful breeding. Breeding is tightly linked to the Southeast Asian monsoons, and in Cambodia breeding likely occurs from late May to late November. ... Sarus Cranes defend territories in seasonally flooded wetlands and glades bordered by dry dipterocarp forests, and will not breed if water levels are too low. ...
Sarus Cranes historically were found from Pakistan to the Philippines and Australia. Populations of the eastern Sarus Crane subspecies have drastically declined to only 500-1,500 birds. ... In 1984 the birds were resighted for the first time in rehabilitated wetlands on the Plain of Reeds. To protect the cranes and their fragile habitat, Tram Chim District Reserve, now a national park, was created in 1986."

The final chapters describe the threats to Vietnam's biodiversity and the status of its conservation laws and programs. Along with habitat destruction, the major threat is wildlife hunting and collection, for consumption and other uses, both inside Vietnam and in regional markets. Vietnam has signed major international conservation agreements, but legal and institutional frameworks for conservation are still being constructed.

A Natural History will provide excellent background for anyone working in conservation in Vietnam. It may also be useful for biologists who want a broader perspective in which to place their fieldwork. And it should appeal to other visitors or travellers with a serious natural history bent.

October 2009

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%T Vietnam: A Natural History
%A Sterling, Eleanor Jane
%A Hurley, Martha Maud
%A Minh, Le Duc
%Q Powzyk, Joyce A.
%I Yale University Press
%D 2006
%O hardcover, illustrations, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0300106084
%P 423pp