Full circle

In Viet Nam’s Central Annamite forests, owning the past and preparing for the future

Growing up in the lush, green landscape of central Viet Nam, Blup Phu spent a lot of time in the evergreen forests close to his home in Karoong Aho. As a teenager, many mornings he would don a pair of plastic sandals and climb the rolling hills that surround his village, with his grandparents nimbly leading the way.

As they ascended, the rising sun would lift the blanket of clouds from the valley, revealing sweeping vistas of the rice paddies below where fellow villagers, often clad in the distinctive red-black brocade of their Ta Oi ethnic group, were already hard at work. In the forest, Phu found a respite from the relentless tropical heat and could glimpse an array of wondrous creatures, like muntjac deer with their magnificent antlers, red-shanked douc langurs, and Annamite striped rabbits.

But for Phu, now 34, these aren’t all happy memories. Those forays into the forest had a clear mission: to snare animals, feed the family, and sell the meat. For 12 years, he and his brother would help carry the carcasses back to their village in baskets, until things came to a head one day when Phu witnessed a particularly distressing incident involving a mother monkey dying while her baby watched on.

“This is very cruel,” Phu recalls saying to his family. “If we keep doing this, there will be nothing left for the next generation to see.”

Forest guard Blup Phu nspects a wildlife snare collected in the forest near his home village.

Sunlight hits a flowering tree in the Bac Hai Van watershed.

He pledged to halt his visits and did so until 2021 when he was invited to become part of a team of community-based forest guards under the auspices of WWF’s Carbon and Biodiversity (CarBi) project. Launched in 2011 and funded by the German government, CarBi’s goals include the protection, restoration, and sustainable use of ecosystems, as well as the conservation of biodiversity.

“Joining the group made me realize how important the forest is,” says Phu, describing how it supplies the village with clean water and fresh air while preventing landslides. “A healthy forest teeming with plant and animal life makes everything and everyone thrive,” he adds.

Phu’s ties to the forest were further cemented when he began working in the nearby Thua Thien Hue Saola Nature Reserve alongside government rangers charged with law enforcement.

Under a mosaic of partnerships, including the United States Agency for International Development Biodiversity Conservation (USAID BCA) project, Phu and his fellow guards work with WWF to maintain healthy forests and wildlife populations.

Today, Phu spends 22 days every month in the forest, protecting the wildlife and beauty of this very special part of Viet Nam.

A gem under threat

The Central Annamites cover more than 5.6 million acres comprising one of mainland Asia’s largest contiguous primary forests. Dominated by the mountain range that straddles Viet Nam and Lao People’s Democratic Republic, the region escaped the frosty grip of the last ice age, providing a warm, wet refuge for species to evolve uninterrupted.

“A healthy forest teeming with plant and animal life makes everything and everyone thrive.”

Blup Phu
on the importance of Viet Nam’s forests

Today, its forests shelter more than 500 bird and 134 mammal species. Many are found almost exclusively in the Annamites and remain poorly known to science, including the elusive and critically endangered saola.

“In Southeast Asia, there are really few of these forest gems left,” says Dechen Dorji, WWF’s senior director, Asian wildlife.

During the war in Viet Nam, large swaths of forest were torched or doused with toxic chemicals, including Agent Orange. To provide locals with a postwar income source, forests were replanted with quick-growing acacia trees that could be sold for pulp, paper, and timber. Unfortunately, this wiped out many native species and created a monocrop that outperformed native seedlings.

The rapid economic development that followed brought about additional pressures, including infrastructure development, as the population in the Central Annamites swelled to approximately 6 million people. In some parts of the region, forests have been halved.

Illustration of a civet

Today, the Central Annamites shelter more than 500 bird and 134 mammal species.

Today, the main threats to forest biodiversity come from large-scale legal and illegal forest conversion, logging, and poaching. In Viet Nam, wildlife is sometimes taken for subsistence or to supply local restaurants, but mostly to feed an illegal wildlife trade made up of local and native species like turtles and monkeys for the pet trade.

Viet Nam is also a transit hub for wildlife products—like pangolin scales, tiger meat, and rhino parts—trafficked from other parts of the world.

A dimly lit room on the ground floor of the Saola Nature Reserve headquarters bears grim testament to the crisis.

Against one rough-hewn concrete wall is a trough the size of two bathtubs jam-packed with all manner of rusty snares—from homemade coils fashioned from motorbike brake cables to bulky clamshells with sinister-looking teeth. Between 2011 and 2022, forest guards removed nearly 146,000 snares from a more than 120-square-mile area alone.

While poaching has declined in recent years, forest biodiversity just isn’t the same anymore, says WWF-Viet Nam CEO Van Ngoc Thinh. He recalls how early in his career, when he was a forest ranger at Bach Ma National Park, one of 16 protected areas in the Central Annamites, “you could just walk into the forest and see animal footprints.”

“But nowadays, you’re walking and walking and walking, and it’s hard to see anything,” says Thinh. “Ninety percent of the animal signs have disappeared. It really hurts to see the forest so empty and silent.”

A plan to protect wildlife

Forest guards A Kieng Nhat Phuc, Ho Van Nui, Pham Viet Nuoc, Le Cong Anh Tuan, and Blup Phu sketch out the patrol route before heading into the Saola Nature Reserve.

One bright morning, Phu and four teammates heave camouflage-patterned rucksacks onto their shoulders and set off on their usual patrol in a part of the 60-square-mile reserve that’s roughly a 10-minute motorbike ride from his house. At regular intervals, Phu pulls out a smartphone and keys their coordinates into a Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool—SMART for short. Should the team spot any snares, signs of illegal logging, or rare endemic species, he will log these too.

An iPhone connected to a camera trap shows an animal

A guard checks animal images retrieved by camera trap.

Shoring up equipment and training for community forest guards and government rangers is just one pillar of what the USAID BCA project and CarBi aim to achieve. Both community forest guards and government rangers, for example, are equipped with mobile SMART devices, and work is now active—and coordinated—across seven provinces in Viet Nam. “Patrolling can now be done in a much more systematic way,” says Nick Cox, WWF’s chief of party for the USAID BCA project, “which means we can expand our impact.”

At the Saola Nature Reserve’s operational nerve center, staff collate and analyze SMART data, ensuring sufficient patrol coverage and modeling wildlife crime patterns. The projects are strengthening intelligence gathering and crime analysis at higher levels, too, and bolstering support for law enforcement agencies to tackle forest-related crimes.

Farther into their trek, Phu’s team reaches a tree in a small clearing with a toaster-sized plastic box affixed to its base. Two teammates retrieve it and swap out the batteries. As they reattach and power it on, a third member crawls past its infrared sensor to test it and gets a thumbs up—the newly revived camera trap is good to go.

It’s one of nearly 2,000 such devices dotted across the Central Annamites as part of the largest camera trap survey ever conducted in the region.

“We hope the Central Annamites will be a model landscape that can be used as a blueprint to inspire conservation in other parts of the country, or even other parts of the region.”

Nick Cox
Chief of Party, USAID BCA

The first round of the findings are now in hand and while the results thus far confirm a striking loss of wildlife, the completed survey should offer millions of images, help create the area’s first comprehensive biodiversity baseline, and—hopefully—capture a living saola on camera.

This work is accompanied by threat assessments, informed by rangers who sweep a wide arc around each camera trap for illegal activity during initial installation and again when they retrieve the devices two months later.

“It’s not just about getting pretty pictures,” says Cox. The information gleaned about wildlife, combined with satellite data on forest cover and other knowledge gathered through USAID BCA, will “help guide future policy and protected area management decisions, including species reintroductions and rewilding,” he says, both of which help restore a landscape’s natural functions.

A return to native trees

Vuong Van Ga and his daughter at the nursery behind their home.

Ta Ruong Thi La plants native saplings in the Doi village forest.

A few hours’ drive from the Saola Nature Reserve, a community in the Bac Hai Van watershed is cultivating multiple native tree species to replace the acacias that once dominated the landscape, stop encroachment into the forest, and increase climate resilience. Each tree on the roughly 25-acre site bears a laminated label with a QR code that can be scanned for information like species, age, and the ideal times to harvest seeds.

Funded by IKEA, the project has established almost 25 acres of seed banks for healthy, native “mother trees” that can produce good-quality seedlings, explains Tran Quoc Hung, director of the local forest management board leading the project. The community can then sell both seeds and seedlings, replicating the model and propagating more native trees throughout the Central Annamites.

Illistration of copse of trees

The people of Doi village have grown roughly 10,000 native saplings for replanting in the hills near their home, and for forest restoration in other communities.

Not far away, the people of Doi village also work together to care for their forest. Members of one community team spend a few days every week tending to a shared nursery in a neat plot of land behind the house of their leader, Vuong Van Ga.

With specialized planting advice from WWF and local partners, the group grows some 20 different species of plants, sowing some saplings in the hills behind their village and selling thousands to the district center for agricultural services, which then distributes them to other communities for forest restoration.

So far, nearly 9,500 seedlings have exchanged hands—generating an additional income source for Ga and his fellow villagers.

“It’s helped raise our standard of living,” says Ga, who spends every morning and afternoon pottering about the nursery, watering saplings, and pulling weeds. “If we can sell a lot, we don’t have to go work in other places far from home.”

On most days, Ga’s 4-year-old daughter trails after him, and he encourages her curiosity: “I really want to introduce ironwood and these other native species to my daughter and grandchildren,” he says. “I feel like it’s their heritage. Without this nursery, there will be nothing to introduce them to.”

A growing committment

The projects in Bac Hai Van and Doi village reflect a larger trend in Viet Nam.

As incomes rise, public interest in conserving wildlife and protecting the environment has grown, along with a proliferation of passionate local conservation NGOs and increasing investments from the likes of IKEA and other big firms that source timber and other supplies from Viet Nam’s plantation forests.

“I really want to introduce ironwood and these other native species to my daughter and grandchildren. I feel like it’s their heritage.”

Vuong Van Ga
Doi village

In fact, there’s so much energy that WWF selected the Central Annamites as one of five initial landscapes included in its Nature-Based Solutions Origination Platform, which will mobilize, scale up, and coordinate public and private investments to harness the power of natural systems to meet societal goals and confront the climate crisis.

This is an especially good time to be doing conservation work in the country, reflects WWF-Viet Nam CEO Thinh. “Conservation goals are more achievable with economic development, and the government now has a stronger commitment to biodiversity.”

In 2022, Viet Nam launched a National Biodiversity Strategy, which aims to increase the area of nature reserves from 7.2% to 9% of the country’s total land area by 2030, among other goals. That same year, the country committed to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 as well. WWF is an advisor to both projects.

All the right elements are in place, adds Thinh. “In recent years, the government has really been listening to the voice of the people,” he says. “The younger generation is getting more engaged with nature. Conservation education has improved. Before, I could only dream of all this. Now, I have hope.”

Full circle

One day before work, Phu reflects on how he came to be a guardian of the forest. He recalls a defining moment while on patrol, when his team encountered a monkey caught in a snare. They quickly freed it, but instead of scampering away as monkeys usually do, the uninjured animal stayed close by for a full 30 minutes, watching them from a distance—as if in gratitude, says Phu.

It was a full-circle moment, redemption for the actions of his youth, Phu adds. “I really want to contribute to forest protection and biodiversity conservation,” he says. “I know what I do is small, but I just try my best.”


Illustration of pangolin, elephant, turtle


The United States Agency for International Development Biodiversity Conservation (USAID BCA) project was launched in 2020 to maintain and increase forest quality and protect and stabilize wildlife populations across 1.7 million acres of forest in Viet Nam.

Funded primarily by USAID, the $43 million, five-year project represents the largest single biodiversity investment in the country to date. WWF is leading implementation, in partnership with communities, government stakeholders, other NGOs, and development partners.

“Since its launch, USAID BCA has helped strengthen livelihoods for forest-dependent communities, improve management of protected areas, establish community-based patrol teams to monitor illegal activities, equip forest rangers with advanced spatial monitoring and reporting tools, and increase public awareness of the need to protect wildlife, including reducing consumption of wildlife meat,” says Aler Grubbs, mission director for USAID Viet Nam.

The magnitude of this investment sets it apart from previous projects in one clear way. “Before, funding was limited to small areas,” says Van Ngoc Thinh, CEO of WWF-Viet Nam. “Now we’re building a whole network,” he adds—an evolution that offers the potential for impact at an unprecedented scale.

Learn more about the USAID BCA project.

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