A state committee in Vietnam has approved a planned highway development linking the north and south of the country, which will cut through the Vu Quang nature reserve and the country’s oldest national park, Cuc Phuong, both habitats for many rare and endangered plant and animal species. The project is merely awaiting the formality of a rubber stamp by the Vietnamese premier Phan Van Khai.

“If Prime Minister Phan Van Khai approves the submitted plan for the Ho Chi Minh Highway, it will be the biggest long-term threat to biodiversity in Vietnam with irreversible impact on many of our earth’s most critically endangered species,” says Richard Birchard, executive director of TigerAid, a US based NGO dedicated to the preservation of wild tigers and their natural habitat. “Apart from the direct impacts of construction, this highway would facilitate access to pristine forest, and therefore, illegal poaching and logging.”

Vu Quang is in a narrow belt that runs along the north of the country’s border with Laos, and is perhaps the largest remaining block of contiguous pristine habitat in northern Indochina with dense jungle home to endangered snakes, tigers, leopards, bears, elephants, and guar – a large wild ox, says TigerAid. Scientists have described the reserve as a “lost world seemingly untouched by the war,” and possibly teeming with new plant and animal species. Cuc Phuong lies just south of Hanoi and is a global centre for plant diversity, as well as being a refuge for Delacour’s leaf monkey, a critically endangered primate, the grey-headed fish eagle, elephants and the Indo-Chinese tiger. Estimates of the big cats numbers across the whole of Indochina number a maximum of 1,750.

However, government officials argue that the new highway will create thousands of jobs, and help resolve “problems” of unused land. Moreover, it will promote economic development across the provinces it passes through, as well as opening trade with Laos, Thailand and Cambodia. In response to protests, construction ministry officials have suggested a more environmental-friendly solution by elevating the highway over the reserves to minimise any impact on the ecology, but says TigerAid, many experts remain unsatisfied. The noise and air pollution from vehicles in the forest canopy will destroy the ecological balance of plant and animal species living within the canopy, they say.

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