We are just a few kilometres from the protected home of one of the world's rarest primates, the Cat Ba angur, or white-headed langur. Only 70 are known to survive on the island of the same name, off the coast of north Vietnam, following decades of hunting. But conservationists have warned that there is another threat: intruders taking the trees themselves.
One kind of tree is targeted in particular. The Ficus benjamica, a common sight across south-east Asia, is a kind of strangling fig popular among bonsai growers. Small trees are taken out at the root, or their stems are removed to sell to nurseries for up to $1,000, where they are potted and pruned into shape for sale. The older the plant, the more valuable it is for the bonsai industry. That, says bonsai expert Nguyen Cong Chi, is why many are taken from the forest.
Chi cares for around 700 bonsai trees at a nursery in Hanoi, and some of them are more than 150 years old. "You can tell the age of the plant by the colour and texture of the bark," he said. Some of his trees sell for up to $350,000.
Experts discourage people from using trees from national parks, said Do Phuong, chairman of the Vietnam Natural and Traditional Beauty Association.
"We ban our members from taking bonsai from protected forests
, and if we discover someone doing so, we will expel them from our organisation," he said.
However, the temptation for poor farmers living near Cat Ba national park to sell the trees is great, said conservation officer Pham Van Tuyen. "It just takes a couple of hours to go into the forest and take a tree but it can take 30 to 40 years to grow one." With hunting becoming more difficult as animals grow scarcer, Tuyen said local people are plundering the trees instead.
Both Tuyen and Tinh work for the Cat Ba Langur Conservation Project, set up in 2000 by the German Zoological Society for the Conservation of Species and Populations and Münster zoo. Scientists had just declared the species one of the rarest primates in the world with less than 60 individuals left. The project employs local people to protect the langur instead of hunting it and runs education programmes in surrounding communities.
Despite their hard work, continued intrusion into the park to get trees is upsetting the already fragile ecosystem and encouraging opportunists to use the forest more often, said project manager Rick Passaro.
"The island is so rich in biodiversity," he said. "Recently rangers found a species of snake never recorded on the island before. Scientists just found two new species, one bat and one gecko, but the large animals are in deep, deep trouble."
Tinh said at the rate the forest is being destroyed: "There will be nothing left in the park, not even trees."