From young to old, every local of Thai Hoa Commune's Cay Vai Village (about 35 kilometres from the centre of Tuyen Quang Province), knows the name of Ong Dat Co (Dat "Stork").
A stork is a familiar sight in Viet Nam's countryside, and it is also the recognised nickname of Chu Van Dat, a Dao ethnic farmer who volunteers in stork protection.
| Chu Van Dat, 72, at home |
| The hill of vau trees is home to storks during their breeding season. Dat has been guarding the birds from hunters for about 10 years. — VNS Photos Doan Tung |
At the age of 72, Dat has been guarding storks from hunters for about 10 years and still running.
"The number of storks flying to the village grows each year," Dat happily says while looking at his hill of vau (a member of the bamboo family) trees that serve as homes to storks during breeding season.
Every March, storks return to the hill to nest, breed and feed their young, Dat says. They then fly back south after the first full-moon in September to avoid the winter cold.
The most crowded months for storks are June and July. In 2008 the flock reached up to a thousand.
"Although I'm unpaid, I feel happy when I see storks fly back to their nest in the sunset everyday, knowing its a safe and protected home."
Dat is proud that in the village, it is only his hill where storks perch to make their nests. He has always believed in the Vietnamese saying "Dat lanh, chim dau" (Birds nest on good land), which motivates him to keep preserving storks.
He does not mention the larger significance of his act on nature and the environment. "I protect the birds because they choose my home as their home," he says.
The idea of protecting storks from hunters came to him in 2001 when storks started to come to his hill to make nests in their migratory journey.
In 2006, he asked the communal People's Committee for permission to protect the storks. After receiving approval from the committee, Dat planted a dozen of signboards stating "No stork hunting" around the hill as a warning to hunters.
"If any gun fire is heard, the storks will fly away and never come back," Dat said.
In addition, at every village meeting, he persuades local villagers to stop hunting the birds and hand over their guns to local authorities if they have any.
Local villagers used to shoot storks for meals or for sale at markets.
"However, the villagers' awareness of stork protection has really improved thanks to Dat's effort," says head of the village Chu Van Quan, adding with excitement that no stork hunting has been reported in the village in recent years. Even mischievous children do not dare to take eggs or catch young birds.
In the first year, occasional shots were heard because some people were indifferent to his efforts, Dat's grandson Chu Van Than says.
"Old age and arthritis have also prevented my grandfather from protecting storks around the hill," Than says, adding that his grandfather sometimes will see a hunter but cannot do anything but shout to hinder him from shooting the birds.
"However, villagers gradually are beginning to understand what I am doing and support me in protecting storks, which encourages me a lot," Dat says.
Dat says he hopes to gain knowledge about the biological characteristics of the species to better protect and care for them.
Dat's son Chu Van Bich says that the four generations of his family all support his father in protecting storks. Bich wants to follow his father's work to make the family's hill a home for storks each breeding season.
According to deputy secretary of the communal Party's Committee Nguyen Cong Ly, the total number of storks nesting in the commune has increased since 2006 when drastic measures were taken to seize guns and explosives in the district.
However, the number of storks was reduced in the last two years as more trees were cut down, threatening their habitat, he says.
Currently, there is no legal document of the commune on stork protection or support for stork protectors, which poses a difficulty to them, Ly adds.
However, the commune encourages and instructs its 24 villages to preserve the habitat of storks by limiting deforestation and keeping the local water source clean.
"Dat's stork protection should be further encouraged," he says, for it would help not only preserve the birds but also protect the environment.