As many Americans have no doubt already forgotten, and as some will never forget, Vietnam was visited not just by their flag’s red, white and blue but also by Agents Orange, White and Blue; toxic herbicides named after the color of their containers. A total of 72 million poisonous liters were dumped over 16 percent of the country in an attempt to deprive Victor Charlie of forest cover.

The high prices offered for certain species of tortoise are causing poachers to scoop up everything in a hard shell all over Southeast Asia.

Miraculously the ancient forests of Cuc Phuong National Park escaped what is possibly the most deliberate and orchestrated attempt ever made to destroy a nation’s environment.

Vietnam’s oldest national park is not, if you’ll pardon the expression, out of the woods yet. The new assault grabs fewer headlines but is potentially as lethal as anything that ever tumbled out of a USAAF aircraft’s belly.

At first glance, mind you, the statistics are encouraging. Cuc Phuong is relatively large. One hundred km southwest of Vietnam’s capital Hanoi, the park covers 22,220 hectares of dragon-back limestone mountains near the Red River Delta.

The rain forests of Cuc Phuong are still holding out against the poachers’ chain saws.

Cuc Phuong enjoys 92 percent rain-forest cover. Some of its truly gigantic trees include the oft-visited 1,000-year-old tree which rises 45 meters high and the 70-meter-tall Radio Tower tree.

Think about that for a minute: 70 meters of tree. Add the sort of buttress roots that seem to swallow an entire busload of visitors in their twisted woody tentacles and you’ve a tree that doesn’t command respect. It commands awe.

A total of 319 bird species, or 40 percent of all Vietnam’s bird species, have been recorded in Cuc Phuong, along with 88 mammal species. There are 50 reptile and amphibian species. No one’s got around to counting all the insects yet, but 1,800 species have so far been identified. The butterflies are particularly gorgeous.

So far so good, and there’s more. Take the park’s intriguing anthropological features for example.

Cuc Phuong has been home to man for well over 10 millennia and many of its numerous caves show evidence of its earliest inhabitants. If their leftovers are anything to go by they subsisted largely on snails. Shells litter the caverns. Most visitors make a beeline for the Cave of Early Man where early Asian man was busy with his escargot 4,500 years before the French colonized the country. Even older graves, dating back to the 10,000 B.C.E. Son Vi culture, have been found at “Mammal Cave.”

Another Cuc Phuong virtue comes in purely practical, humanocentric terms. The park’s forests are an irreplaceable watershed for the emerald-green rice paddies that spread like a glowing quilt over the surrounding plains. Locals in coolie hats which make them look like animated mushrooms erect clever river-driven waterwheels out of rattan and bamboo to irrigate their rice. Some get as large as Ferris wheels.

Effectively Cuc Phuong is a place that is its own argument for rigorous official protection and an immediate ecotourism boom that benefits Cuc Phuong, the indigenous Muong people and the Vietnamese economy.

So what’s going wrong?

The usual stuff.

Illegal logging, under-financed rangers, poaching for the pet trade and for the increasingly affluent and demanding exotic-species soup bowls of China.

The very rare Owston’s palm civet is poached to supply its glands to the Chinese “medicinal trade.”

Many of Cuc Phuong’s species are being pushed to the edge. The desperately rare Owston’s palm civet is coveted by the traditional Chinese medicine trade. So is the sun bear.

The peculiar-looking binturong (a sort of souped-up civet) is trapped for pet enthusiasts who want an animal at home that no one else has ever heard of. Birds are snared for the cage or the cooking pot. No one was prepared to say with authority quite where the valuable tropical hardwoods were headed for after they’d fallen out of the park and on to the back of a lorry.

Someone hinted that it might be Japan.

The animals taking it most seriously in the neck, not just here but all over Vietnam and neighboring Cambodia and Laos, are the chelonians — the turtles and tortoises. Indeed, the assault on these inoffensive creatures is so concerted that it threatens virtually every single Vietnamese species with extirpation, according to zoologist Doug Hendrie, who heads the Cuc Phuong Conservation Project. A single specimen of Cuora trifusciata, for example, which is believed to cure cancer, fetches circa $1,000 — a sum that makes catching every turtle in any given area attractive. The dealers know the species they want. The trappers don’t. Every turtle is systematically hunted out.

Although the CPCP has the distinction of being the only organization to breed Owston’s palm civet in captivity, is also breeding gibbons and is involved with vigorous environmental education programs, Hendrie’s first love and greatest fear is for the chelonians.

While a CPCP worker named “Worm Boy” delivered his daily bucket of worms for the CPCP’s reptilian guests, Hendrie explained that given the current situation practically the only hope for some of Vietnam’s chelonians is to be protected in captivity until the country has developed a properly functioning conservation infrastructure — which, in all honesty, could take a while.

So what’s to be done? If you are the sort of Japan Times reader who is still an unhammered nail you could always pop along to your local pet shop and count the numerous illegally marketed Indochinese turtles and tortoises (not forgetting those binturong). You could then berate the shop owner and call the police. Who, by and large, don’t give a hoot.

If you are the sort of Japan Times reader who has $4,000 in loose change, you could send a cheque for $4,000 to Hendrie (via us at The Japan Times). This will enable him to wall off an entire hill to act as a temporary holding facility for tortoises and turtles confiscated by border authorities. The CPCP’s current holding facilities are excellent but insufficiently large to cope with the sheer weight of numbers that are being confiscated with CPCP staff help at the border.

If you’re the kind of Japan Times reader who thinks eating an endangered species will improve your ardor, try Viagra. It’s had rave reviews.

And, of course, if you are a nature traveler who happens to be in Vietnam, visit the CPCP and Cuc Phuong. It’s a place that was wonderful, and could be wonderful again, but isn’t. Yet.

Though, to give it its due, it still does have its moments.

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