AsiaLIFE tracks down some of the wildlife that’s managed to eke out an existence in Ho Chi Minh City’s urban jungle. Words and pictures by Barbara Adam.
When Ho Thi Hoa was a child, parts of what is now Ho Chi Minh City were heavily forested and full of wild animals, including tigers.
Since that time, vast swathes of forest have been urbanised, and now most of the city is a concrete jungle. But wildlife still exists, if you know where to look.
Hoa, who was born in 1932, told her children she heard tigers roar in the jungle surrounding her village, a terrifying sound, especially in the pre-dawn dark when she was going to the market. The jungle was between Hoa’s village, now known as Phu Nhuan district, and the airport, and continued all the way to Cu Chi district.
“When someone heard or saw a tiger, they would bang a drum or cooking pots,” Hoa’s daughter Nguyen Minh Hieu said. “All the villagers would make a big noise. It was for two reasons. First to scare the tiger away, and second to let everyone know there was a tiger around.”
Hoa also told her children a story of a midwife who was carried off by a tiger in the middle of the night. She returned to the village the next day with tiger teeth-marks on her side, scars she carried for the rest of her life.
The midwife, Ba Mu, said the tiger carried her into the jungle to where a second tiger was having a difficult labour. She helped the tiger give birth, and then ran away. Several days later she found the carcass of a wild boar on her doorstep, which she believed to be a thank-you gift from the tigers.
From then on, Ba Mu (midwife) was known as Mu Choi (midwife from god). Hieu’s mother told her Mu Choi was from her village, even though this story seems to be an urban legend in Southern Vietnam.
British historian Tim Doling said Hoa’s tiger stories are common among older Saigonese, and the creatures continued to kill people until the mid-twentieth century.
“I’ve been told repeatedly by the elders of communal houses all over this area, including at Phu Nhuan, Chi Hoa, Binh Dong, Phong Phu, Thong Tay Hoi communal houses here in Saigon, that the tiger images found on many of the binh phong (decorative room-dividing) screens were there to appease the tiger, who was greatly feared as the lord of the forest,” Tim said.
“Because it was a symbol of power and strength, the tiger was deified. Its imagery is often found in temples, particularly on shrines associated with Mother Goddess worship. Images of the tiger are also frequently used in conjunction with those of the dragon in depictions of the balance between yin and yang.”
Wildlife artist Dao Van Hoang was born in Saigon in 1964. He grew up in a later era of Saigon than Hoa, but he has childhood memories of many species of wildlife that have now disappeared.
“I used to net lots of colourful butterflies around Tan Dinh district where we lived in the 70s,” Hoang said. “I guess I contributed to their extinction in the city. We don’t find so many now.”
Hoang, who returned to Ho Chi Minh City in 1996, 17 years after leaving on a boat, always keeps an eye out for wildlife in the city.
“You don’t see the huge tokay geckos in the city anymore,” he said. “I think they’ve all ended up in rice wine. But you do see little geckos everywhere. There are probably many different species, including the ones who camouflage themselves on the dark bark of Hopea odorata trees.”
Like most Ho Chi Minh City residents, Hoang regularly sees squirrels, bats, birds and lizards. His keen eyes have also spotted some rare insects, including a pair of Atlas moths, as well as frogs, skinks and calotes, a genus of the lizard family. He was thrilled to find some flying tree snakes and some Asian grass lizards near his apartment in Thao Dien in District 2.
The venom of flying tree snakes are only a danger to small prey. But local news outlets regularly report cases of the venomous snake bites in Ho Chi Minh City. One of the quirks of identifying wildlife in Vietnam is that animal names translated into English are not the same as the commonly-used English name for the same species. For example, the venomous snake that’s regularly spotted in the city has the scientific name trimeresurus albolabris and is called ran luc duoi do in Vietnamese, which translates directly as red-tailed viper. However, in English this pretty green snake is known as the white-lipped pit viper. It usually hunts birds, frogs, and small mammals, striking and holding onto the prey until it dies. Bites can be fatal to humans.
Another unusual species regularly seen in Saigon is the colourful Indo-Chinese forest lizard (Calotes mystaceus), a relatively large lizard with a brilliant blue head.
Birds of a Feather
Stuart Palmer is a wild-haired British twitcher who’s lived in Ho Chi Minh City for eight years. He has identified many different species living in the city, including some rare and endangered breeds.
Stuart operates Stu’s Explorer Club, a little outfit that takes people on weekend camping trips to Tri An Lake in Dong Nai province. Stuart has identified 92 species of birds in his camping area. He estimates in the jungle proper there would be more than 130 species.
But back to Ho Chi Minh City, where Stuart has seen streak-eared bulbul, yellow-vented bulbul, white-vented myna, spotted doves, zebra doves, pied fantails, plaintive cuckoos, greater coucal, collared kingfisher, white-throated kingfisher, red-breasted parakeets, scarlet minivet and black-naped oriel.
Barn owls (tyto alba) are also often seen in the city at night. Many Vietnamese regard these birds are harbingers of doom, believing that if one lands on your house, it means someone in the household will die.
Quite a few people, including Stuart, have also reported seeing hornbills in Ho Chi Minh City.
Downtown Ho Chi Minh City is where most of the birds live, in the green corridor created by the French town planners that includes the Saigon Zoo, Thong Nhat Park that leads to the lush grounds of the Reunification Palace and Tao Dan Park. Helping to link these green spaces is the 1.5 hectare “backyard” of the French consulate, where French Consul General Vincent Floreani has spotted civet cats, as well as a variety of birds, lizards and snakes.
According to Tim Doling’s historicvietnam.com website, Ho Chi Minh City’s downtown greenbelt is the legacy of Jean-Baptiste Louis-Pierre, who was hired to assist French army veterinarian Rodolphe Alphonse in setting up Saigon’s botanic gardens (and later the Saigon Zoo) in the 1860s and 70s.
Historic Green Corridor
As director of the Jardin botanique et zoologique, Louis-Pierre “spent much of his time combing the region’s forests and savannahs, gathering what became one of the largest and richest tropical plant collections ever amassed by a single individual”. (You can read more about Louis-Pierre on the Historic Vietnam website here: www.historicvietnam.com/jean-baptiste-louis-pierre.)
Many of the large trees in Ho Chi Minh City’s downtown area are also the result of Louis-Pierre’s work.
As is the case all around the world, habitat destruction is the biggest threat to Ho Chi Minh City’s wildlife, including the birds. The Thu Thiem new urban area development, across the river from District 1, hit Ho Chi Minh City’s bird populations hard, Stuart said.
Thu Thiem is intended to replace District 1 as Ho Chi Minh City’s main business hub. Local news outlets have reported that the Ho Chi Minh City government spent ten years moving 15,000 households out of the 647-hectare Thu Thiem Peninsula to make room for the megaproject.
CBRE Vietnam estimates that the Thu Thiem new urban area, once completed, will have a resident population of 150,000 with a daily working population of 220,000.
Stuart remembers the area before the clearance began as a haven for birdlife.
“There were flocks of egrets and little cormorants, bitterns and bulbuls and kingfishers in that area,” he said. “Now their habitat is gone. They would have tried to move to a new area but the problem with moving is that you have a conflict with the existing bird populations.”
As well as the wildlife that’s surviving in Ho Chi Minh City, there is also, unfortunately, a strong trade in exotic pets and wildlife poached from other parts of Vietnam.
Until December 2015, the non-governmental organisation Wildlife at Risk (WAR) operated a wildlife rescue centre in Ho Chi Minh City’s Cu Chi district.
For the decade that WAR operated the centre, the organisation rescued and released nearly 7,000 animals, including turtles, otters, monkeys, snakes, pangolins, pygmy lorises and monitor lizards, birds, leopard cats, gibbons and sea turtles, said Le Xuan Lam, manager of WAR’s new Dau Tieng wildlife conservation station.
When WAR’s agreement with the Ho Chi Minh City government wasn’t renewed, the organisation had to leave about 200 animals behind. The Cu Chi rescue centre is now run by the Ho Chi Minh City Forest Protection Department.
Construction of WAR’s Dau Tien wildlife conservation station in Binh Duong province — right next door to Ho Chi Minh City’s Thu Duc and Go Vap districts — is still underway, and is expected to be completed by the start of next year.
The centre already has a number of rescued animals in its care, including some endangered psychedelic rock gecko, turtles, macaques, Burmese ferret-badgers, Burmese pythons, Vietnamese loris and a very rare leopard cat.
“The new research centre will focus on captive breeding of some endangered species,” Lam said as he gave the AsiaLIFE team a tour of the facilities. “We will breed, rehabilitate and release them back into the forest.”
The new centre is much bigger than WAR’s previous premises, with approximately 7000 square metres, and it will have rooms for volunteers who want to assist with the animal rehabilitation work, as well as offices, an examination room and a meeting room. Lam hopes that at some point in the future he’ll be able to buy more land nearby to expand.
On our tour of the facility, we were introduced to pairs of giant Asian pond turtles, elongated tortoises and a yellow-headed temple turtle. We were also shown a spangled (or clouded) monitor lizard, which is on the verge of extinction, a water monitor, a cobra — not a king cobra, just the normal kind, Lam said in an offhand manner — and some psychedelic rock geckos that are only found on islands off Cau Mau, Vietnam’s southernmost province.
The primate section does not yet have breeding pairs, just a lone stump-tailed macaque, a single red-faced macaque and a five-month-old black-shanked duoc langur, listed as an endangered species.
All of the animals at the centre were rescued from poachers and illegal wildlife traders, Lam said. In the past, when WAR co-operated with the Ho Chi Minh City Forest Protection Department, they often received exotic pets, which had either escaped, been rescued or released for merit.
The Buddhist practice of releasing animals to generate good merit has some dire ecological consequences because in most cases the animal is first captured from the wild.
About six years ago WAR rescued an endangered Siamese crocodile, which had been bought by a resident of District 7 for a merit release. The previous year, a Ho Chi Minh City monk handed over a king cobra, which had been given to his monastery in another merit release.
WAR’s rescue centre now cooperates with the Forest Protection Department of Binh Duong, so they can no longer accept animals from Ho Chi Minh City. (However, if you just happen to be in the province with a rescued animal, you could give WAR a call.) Rescued wildlife requires quite a bit of paperwork, so the process can be relatively slow. Education for Nature – Vietnam (ENV) has a network of 7,500 volunteers across Vietnam who assist in the reporting and rescue of wildlife. “The message is to leave wildlife in the wild,” said ENV Deputy Director Nguyen Phuong Dung. “Possession of an endangered animal without a permit is a crime. We also hear of people buying wildlife from street vendors to ‘rescue’ it. Doing so is breaking the law and only serves to perpetuate the illegal wildlife trade. The advice is to either contact the authorities or ENV.”