With a love for nature in general and wild birds in particular, since 2005, Mr. Nguyễn Hoài Bảo has decided to establish Wildtour Research and Tourism Company Limited (Wildtour Company) to introduce the beauty of Vietnam's birds to the world. In addition, the company specializes in carrying out research activities on ecology, conservation and environmental protection projects.
To learn about the Company's activities in environmental protection and biodiversity conservation, Vietnam Environment Administration Magazine (VEM) had an interesting conversation with Mr. Nguyễn Hoài Bảo - Director of Wildtour Company and who is also a lecturer at the University of Sciences - Việt Nam National University Hồ Chí Minh City.
Mr. Nguyễn Hoài Bảo - Director of Wildtour Company
VEM: It is known that Wildtour is the first company in Việt Nam to provide bird watching tours. So please tell me, from what idea did you decide to establish Wildtour Company?
Mr. Nguyễn Hoài Bảo: Việt Nam has more than 900 bird species, of which many rare species are listed in the IUCN Redlist. I started studying birds in 1999 when I was a 3rd year university student. After a few years of research, I know that the beauty and diversity of birds in Việt Nam has attracted the attention of many nature lovers around the world. Therefore, in 2005, I decided to establish a company specializing in providing bird watching tours, in order to introduce the beauty of Vietnam's birds to the world community. At that time, bird watching was a very popular outdoor activity in developed countries such as Western Europe and North America, but it was still a very strange thing in Việt Nam Therefore, some relatives and friends tried to dissuade, they did not believe that anyone would accept to spend money just to see birds. However, I myself have been asked by some international friends for a guide to endemic bird areas in Việt Nam, from which I believe that Việt Nam is a potential destination for bird "believers" around the world.
Birdwatching tour is an activity of observing and learning about birds in the wild, and can record and name observed species. Bird watching can be done with your eyes or through a number of supporting devices: binoculars, telephoto lenses, recorders... This is not a scientific study but just a "sport" - entertainment that comes from each person's passion. Bird watching tourism has appeared for a long time in the world but has not been widely popular because it is quite difficult and expensive for participants.
Europeans are very fond of traveling and learning about birds, especially English, Swedish, Danish and Dutch. Since the early 90s, when Việt Nam opened, tourists have been interested in bird tours. They come to see and take pictures of Vietnamese birds, especially the beautiful and endemic birds that occur only in Việt Nam. Recently, when digital photography has grown strongly, Asians participating in bird photography tours have also increased, so many visitors from Singapore, Thailand, Japan and Taiwan are emerging markets.
Most of Wildtour's clients are foreigners, some are experts in ecology, some have nothing to do with the proffesion, but all have the same passion for learning and studying birds. Bird watching in Việt Nam is quite difficult because most of the bird areas are far away and not easy to access. To see some endemic species, visitors have to go into deep forest, climb high mountains, to places where very few people set foot. The price of bird watching tour is also very expensive, from a few million VND for a trip of 1 - 2 days/person to tens of millions, even up to hundreds of millions of VND if it lasts a whole month for visitors who want to see the whole endemic bird area. Each year, the company only organizes about 20 bird watching tours due to the rainy months. Bird watching today has become a tourism trend that brings great revenue to countries if they know how to properly exploit it. In addition to financial income, bird watching tourism also brings many other values such as arousing love of nature, thereby increasing the awareness of environmental protection for both visitors and local people.
VEM: Can you share international experiences in building a model of wildlife conservation through ecotourism?
Mr. Nguyễn Hoài Bảo: There are many bird conservation models in the world that have achieved great success. The most typical example can be mentioned as the conservation of birds of Paradisaeidae in New Guinea through ecotourism activities. Birds of Paradisaeidae are a family of 39 most beautiful, intelligent and rare birds in the world. Indigenous tribes often use their feathers to decorate hats, costumes, weapons, houses..., they are exchanged as jewelry and have a high price in the market, so these species have been mercilessly hunted. Recently, with the development of this type of bird photography tourism, the indigenous tribes gradually gave up the habit of hunting them to sell for money, on the contrary, they protect them and earn extra income. From serving local tourists to visiting and photographing birds of Paradisaeidae…
In Cambodia, a country nearby, there is a conservation program for the giant ibis and white-shouldered ibis in combination with ecotourism in the village of Tmatbouy, Prea Vihear province. Specifically, the great ibis (Pseudibis gigantea) and the white-shouldered ibis (Pseudibis davison) are two species of birds listed as critically endangered (CR) due to hunting and loss of dipterocarp forest habitat. Both species are also recorded in Yok Đôn National Park of Việt Nam, but in very small numbers. To protect these two species, the Cambodian Government together with WCS and the local community have established an ecotourism program in Tmatbouy village in Kulen Promptep Reserve. The program has attracted many international birdwatchers to visit. This activity not only helps restore the populations of two species that are almost globally extinct, but also helps create the livelihoods of many local communities thanks to tourism-related activities such as guesthouses, restaurant and tour guide for international visitors to bird watching.
In Việt Nam, every year more than 1,000 international visitors come to take pictures of the striped-bellied penguins in Cát Tiên National Park. If we calculate the cost of 250 USD/person/day and stay at least 3 days in Việt Nam, the revenue from this bird so far, we have calculated no less than 1 million USD. But this cost cannot compare with the way in Hokkaido, Japan attracts a few thousand people a year to take pictures of cranes and has to register in advance because of the large number of people. Or when I went to take pictures of an Australian penguin, the lowest ticket price was 25 USD, the highest was 75 USD, but the number of people taking pictures was full of the whole stadium.
Previously, sarus cranes were abundant in Đồng Tháp, now they have to go to Cambodia to take pictures for 15 USD/time excluding other travel expenses. Thailand now spends millions of dollars a year to restore the sarus cranes. Nowaday, the world is exploiting nature in a long and sustainable way, while in our country, the nature is left open for hunting and extermination of birds. We often exhort people to protect the environment and conserve biodiversity, but we don't prove that there is benefit from conservation activities. Moreover, the tourists’ love of nature and environmental protection habits can also wake up the local people. Therefore, local people will pay more attention to environmental protection of birds and other species’ habitat.
VEM: Besides ecotourism activities, can you introduce some other activities of the Company?
Mr. Nguyễn Hoài Bảo: During the 2 years of the epidemic, wildlife tourism activities were temporarily shelved. The company's main activities in recent years have focused on environmental impact assessment of projects, propaganda, education and advocacy for environmental protection and biodiversity. Some typical conservation projects can be mentioned as the Project of Conservation of Coastal Wetlands in the Mekong Delta with 2 phases. Phase 1 was carried out from 2019 - 2020 with the goal of studying the current status and identifying coastal wetlands which play important role for biodiversity in general and coastal migratory birds in particular. The results of this period show that the tidal flats in Cần Giờ (Hồ Chí Minh City), Gò Công (Tiền Giang), Ba Tri and Bình Đại (Bến Tre) are habitats that play a very important role for the survival of migratory birds. Phase 2 of the project will start from August 2021 to the end of 2023 with the main goals including: dissemination of the research results in phase 1 to stakeholders such as local people, government agencies and scientists; development of the conservation measures needed to protect key wetlands for migratory birds with the participation of communities and local authorities; Development of plans and recommendations to propose to the government to establish new wetland protected areas.
Furthermore, we also participated in the research project on using symbiotic fungi to restore forests in Lâm Đồng. This project has been implemented for 4 years with the cooperation of many units including Institute of Mushrooms and Biotechnology, Central Highlands Scientific Research Institute, Đa Nhim Protection Forest, University of Sciences - VNU Hồ Chí Minh City and The Mushroom Initiative (Hongkong). With this project, we carried out study to inoculate symbiotic mycelium into some forest tree species to help the tree grow better and at the same time the mushroom can be to improve livelihood of local people and reduce pressure on the exploitation of forest resources. Keeping forests also increases the value of biodiversity, especially attracts birds to live to develop bird watching tourism for local communities, creating more jobs and income for them.
In addition, the Company also advises many wind electricity projects to minimize the project's impact on biodiversity such as in Quảng Trị, Ninh Thuận, Bình Thuận, Tiền Giang, Bến Tre, Trà Vinh and Bạc Liêu. Currently, the development of renewable energy, including wind electricity, is a hot issue in Việt Nam, but massive development without a specific assessment of its effects on the environment will lead to loss of biodiversity, especially birds and bats. Our studies as well as research around the world have shown direct and indirect effects on birds and bats, namely changes in habitat and collision on turbine blades kills a large number of birds and bats and can reduce biodiversity and unbalance the ecosystem. Therefore, all international financial institutions such as ADB, WB, IFC, KFW... require an environmental safeguard policy, in which the impact to biodiversity is minimized (IFC PS6) is a prerequisite when providing capital to wind electricity investors. With extensive experience and expertise in this area, based on baseline studies, we advise both lenders and investors to develop a Biodiversity Management Plan (BMP) before constructing the project as well as biodiversity monitoring during operation.
Mr. Nguyễn Hoài Bảo is training people near Bidoup National Park in bird-watching techniques
VEM: From your company's activities, what do you think about the status in Việt Nam and suggest solutions to conserve birds in particular and wildlife in general Việt Nam?
Mr. Nguyễn Hoài Bảo: Wildlife protection is a problem not only in Việt Nam but also in the whole world. From a backward agricultural country in combine with culture of hunting and gathering of forest products from the forest, we are gradually transitioning to an industrial economy. The habit of hunter-gatherer inherent in the community many years ago, today, when the economic structure changes, the people can't change their habit timely. A small part of the people living near the forest still maintain the habit of hunting and gathering because they have not been able to adapt to the new way of life. The most worrying issue today is that economic development activities that do not pay attention to the environment will lead to a lot of biodiversity loss that we can never recover, in which include habitat loss of wild species due to unsustainable urbanization and agricultural development.
The culinary culture of the Vietnamese has been deeply ingrained in our minds, most people think that wild bird meat is clean and nutritious and eating wild bird meat is stylish and aristocratic, so consumer demand is higher as more people become rich. It is the great demand from people who have a lot of money and are willing to pay large amounts to buy those animals that have prompted many people to hunt more. Moreover, at present, our country's law only punishes those who hunt and trade but do not handle consumers, so consumers are almost innocent, but they themselves are the cause of harm to the survival of wildlife.
Therefore, wildlife conservation in general and birds in particular needs the participation of the whole society while the state and relevant management levels need to take the lead as well as create a participation mechanism from many sectors. Businesses also need to have conservation activities to "pay back" for the impacts which caused by businesses activities. Under the current mechanism, only by establishing as many protected areas as possible can we hope to protect ecosystems and wildlife. We hope that the State will soon establish more wetland protection zones for coastal and alluvial lands near estuaries in Hải Phòng, Thái Bình and Hồ Chí Minh City, Tiền Giang and Bến Tre. In addition, there should be strict guidelines and regulations on environmental impact assessment of economic projects and strengthen Law enforcement in wildlife protection, especially with strict sanctions for wildlife traders and users.
In more civilized countries, people realize that wild birds play a very important role in human life, so they have no need to eat wild birds and so that birds can live freely next to people. There is one more thing that sounds paradoxical, but in fact wild bird meat is not "clean" as one might think, scientists have studied a lot about toxins that accumulate in the body of wild birds. Agrochemicals are transferred from small organisms to crabs, fish... and eventually accumulate in the highest organisms on the food chain such as birds so that toxic substances such as Dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene (DDE) which are difficult to decompose in wild birds are several thousand times higher than in poultry. We need to promote propaganda to raise people's awareness about biodiversity protection in general and wildlife protection in particular.
(Source: Vietnam Environment Administration Magazine, English Edition IV-2021)