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Cat Ba archipelago which locates at 106°54′11′′- 107°07′05′′ East and 20°42′40′′- 20°52′45′′ North, makes up the western edge of the Gulf of Tonkin in Northern Vietnam. The site covers an area of 328.64 km2; with a population of 28,365 inhabitants (in 2005) of which the majority are Kinh ethnic. Cat Ba archipelago consists of 366 islands and islets. Many islets have been named such as Cat Ong, Cat Duoi, Hon May (Clouds islet), Quai Xanh, Tai Keo, etc. The largest island named Cat Ba island (Dao Ngoc) has a spectacular and picturesque landscape. The average altitude is 70m while the highest mountain is up to 331m.
On the administration zoning map, Cat Ba island includes the Cat Ba town at its South Eastern part, looking to the Lan Ha Bay and six communes: Gia Luan, Hien Hao, Phu Long, Tran Chau, Viet Hai and Xuan Dam. Cat Ba archipelago situates in the tropical monsoon region, highly influenced by the Ocean so all the average indexes in humidity, temperature and rainfall are similar to other areas in the region except the lower temperature in the winter and higher temperature in the summer in comparison to the average in the northern inland provinces.
Cat Ba archipelago bears the exceptional natural values with its tropical forests covering the limestone system and the mangrove wetlands. These vegetation layers form spectacular and scenic landscapes and make the site home of all Vietnam's typical ecosystems.
In addition to its rich biodiversity, aesthetic values resulted from its geomorphology and topography, the heritage also includes many archaeological sites, such as Cai Beo and other unnamed sites which have been protected for its exceptional importance in archaeology.
The rich biodiversity and the various ecosystems resulted in its inscription to the UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve List on 02 December 2004. With these exceptional values in the marine ecosystems and biodiversity, particularly with its symbolic sub-species, Cat Ba white-headed langur or Cat Ba langur, the site has drawn international interests and assistance for wildlife conservation. Cat Ba archipelago has become truly a valuable genetic reserve for a variety of wildlife and plants, including the rare and endangered species. It also serves as a living laboratory for scientists and visitors to conduct their research and exploration.
Scientific research has recorded 2,320 existing wildlife and plant species, including the followings:
- Terrestrial plants: 741 species
- Forest wildlife: 282 species
- Wetlands plants: 23 species
- Sea weeds: 75 species
- Phytoplankton: 199 species
- Zooplankton: 89 species
- Marine bottom species: 538 species
- Marine fishes: 196 species
- Corals: 177 species
Cat Ba island has been found the top of all the northern islands of Vietnam for a variety and copiousness of its fauna and flora. This is not only a genetic reserve but also a home of many highly endangered, rare species. About 80 species and sub-species have been identified endangered and classified in the Vietnam's Red List, including:
- Terrestrial animals: about 30 species of those, Cat Ba langur which is a critically endangered has been preserved and increased number of individuals with the IUCN support.
- Terrestrial plants: 27 species of those the most typical species are Annamocarya sinensis, Najeia fleuryi, Ardisia, Chukrasia tubularis, Cinnamonum parthoroxylon, Smilax glabra, Sasa japonica, Madluca pasquierri, etc.
- Sea weeds: 8 species have been classified in the Red List.
- Marine bottom species: 8 species are identified endangered, including: Trochus pyramis; Trochus niloticus; Pinctada marganitifera; Pinna atropurpurea; Anomalodiscus squamosa; Mytillus smaragdinus; Stepia tigris, Lutraria rhincheus.
Besides, there are many wildlife and plant species that have high economic values, such as over 30 valuable fish species which make up the marine fish field Cat Ba - Long Chau; over 70 marine bottom species which have high economic values serving as the top sea foods in the tourism and exportation market. Cat Ba archipelago also has the typical ecosystem on marine limestone system.
- Cat Ba has 15,000 - 20,000 hectares of rainforests, of which the primitive rainforest remains on an area of 570 hectares. This primitive rainforest covering the limestones is home to many rare wild species of fauna and flora. This is not only a valuable natural property for researchers and scientists, but also for tourism. Of its high biodiversity, there are 745 plant species recorded including many rare species such as Cho Dai, Najeia fleuryi, Chukrasia tubularis. The fauna on the island consists of 282 terrestrial species, including 20 species from animal families, 69 species from bird families, 15 species from reptiles families and 11 species from frogs families. Cat Ba white-headed langur is the world critical endangered species which only exists in Cat Ba. There are about 70 recorded Cat ba langur individuals in total, living in 20 small groups on cliffs areas in Northwestern Gia Luan commune and Southestern Cat Ba island. In addition, there exists the Kim Giao forest (Najeia fleuryi) which covers the highest Ngu Lam mountain in the region.
- Many scenic sinkholes found in the heritage with the most typical is the Ao Ech lake (Frog Lake) with the surface of 3 hectares on limestone where wetland forest exists all year rounds; Man Tan cave where many rare animal species are existing. There are also a number of regionally important habitat types including Vem lake, Tham lake and Ca cave.
- Coral reef: Many scenic and condense coral reef which spreads along Lan Ha Bay not only attract tourists but also forms an important areas for marine species reproduction.
- Marine wetland forests and tidal mud flats which are home of many fauna and flora species are also genetic resources, protecting the shore and promising for tourism development.
- Cat Ba archipelago is granted of many small scale beaches. Satellite records show 26 natural sandy beaches scattering on the islands and islets with many of those have been named such as Cat Co I, Cat Co II, Cat Co III, Cat Dua, Duong Gianh, etc. In addition to its outstanding values in the karst system characterized by numerous typical sinkholes and diverse ecosystems, Cat Ba is also rich of monuments, archaeological sites, cultural festivals and traditions that are highly potential for conservation and development.
Criterion (ix): Cat Ba Archipelago is an outstanding and typical example for tropical and subtropic ecosystems in Asia. It is typically characterized as the largest limestone island ecosystem in Asia. This also contains the highest diverse degree of typical tropical and subtrocpic ecosystems that lie sequentially and next to each other within the property such as primary tropical rainforest on island, mangrove forest, tidal flat, marine lake, and coral reef. These ecosystems represent the on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of the marine and insular ecosystems, which is illustrated through a great diversity of the animal and plant communities on the islands and under the sea, and 21 species of animals and plants endemic to the site. Over the development period of 18,000 years, the property still keeps its primary features and stays un-degraded, even though humans have appeared there for 7,000 years now.
Criterion (x): The white-headed langur or Cat Ba langur (Trachypithecus poliocephalus) is a critically endangered langur from Cat Ba Island which have been saved and protected with the support from international organizations, including UNESCO.
The crust in Cat Ba region has geologic history of 500 - 600 million years; Archaeological records show the evidence of human beings dated 6000-7000 years on this archipelago. Cat Ba is also home of the rich fauna and flora.
Cat Ba National Park was established by the Decision 79/CP by the Government Cabinet. In 2004, Cat Ba was recognized a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO with the core zone is Cat Ba National Park.
Since its inscription to the World Biosphere Reserve List by UNESCO, the natural conservation activities initiated in the site management plan of Cat Ba National Park have been strengthened and attracted more community participation. Significant results of these activities have been achieved in wildlife conservation. According to statistics by IUCN (Mr. Ashley Brooks), there have been 42 initiatives and projects undertaken on Cat Ba archipelago within 10 years (1995-2005) by national and international organizations and individuals to preserve the site and its natural properties.
Cat Ba archipelago can be compared with the World Heritage Puerto-Princes Subterr anean River National Park (Philippine) and Thungyai - Huai Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuaries (Thailand), Phong Nha - Ke Bang (Quang Binh province, Vietnam) and Ba Be National Park (Bac Kan province, Vietnam). That is the similarity in aesthetic beauty, biodiversity and endangered species listed in IUCN Red Book.