By: Chris Humphrey

Phuong stresses that there are unique creatures in the cave such as arthropods, blind fish, rare myriapoda centipedes and white translucent shrimp that can only thrive in an environment that’s disconnected from the outside world. He also found cave pearls the size of baseballs, which is unheard of anywhere else in the world, along with rimstones, tetra coral fossils and 70-meter stalagmites. But if more light, noise, or even “human breath” finds its way inside, he says, the ecosystem could be “severely affected.”

When the cable car plans shifted to En Cave, Phuong drafter a letter to Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc asserting the right of local people to resist the cable car. According to the letter, which Mongabay gained access to, “Even if they get to En Cave it’s in the center of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, and the tropical forest ecosystem there should be protected. If the cable car gets there the forest will definitely be ruined.” The Vietnamese government responded noting receipt of the letter, but made no further contact.

A rimstone system on a stalactite inside Son Doong Cave. (Photo courtesy Professor Phuong Ta)

Despite the lack of response, efforts like Phuong’s may be the only way to save the caves. When Huong first explored Son Doong Cave, she met British Cave Expert Howard Limbert, the man who dedicated 18 years of his life to discovering the cave, and he explained the importance of Vietnamese intervention.

During the trek, Limbert spoke to Huong at length. “I was the only Vietnamese in the group. He shared with me the news about the cable car, and that was the very first time I heard of it. That was July 2014. I think what moved me the most was that he said he regretted discovering this place.” Huong noted in her TEDx talk that Limbert broke down in tears as he spoke of his regret.

“Obviously this cave means a lot to this man,” she said. “He dedicated so much of his life to discovering it, and then he felt hopeless. But he carried on saying we still have hope, but the people who can actually make changes must be Vietnamese people. As a foreigner, he can only provide advice, not actually advocate for changes.”

Cave Pearls within the rimstone system. (Photo courtesy Professor Phuong Ta)

It was this talk that lit a fire in Huong, and she hasn’t ceased campaigning since. Limbert, meanwhile, has found himself at the vanguard of eco-tourism in Vietnam. Oxalis, the adventure tour company he works for, now employs 550 people from Quang Binh Province, some of whom used to be involved in illegal logging and hunting in the area.

For Limbert, the connection between employment and conservation couldn’t be clearer. By providing jobs to locals, he says, the temptation to get involved in illegal, environmentally damaging activities is taken away. “There’s no hunting now,” he said, “there’s no logging of rare woods. We’re seeing far more animals appearing in the area where we run tours.”

Tetracoral fossils within the cave. (Photo courtesy Professor Phuong Ta)

Every action has a consequence, however, and Phuong notes that, even with small, eco-friendly tours, there is evidence of environmental wear and tear in the caves. “Five years ago I visited Son Doong for the first time,” he said. “Recently, I went in again, and I saw that the system of cave pearls has faded, its quality worsened and become drier.” If more people come in, he says, this deterioration would continue, although he is yet to complete his latest round of scientific analysis.

For Huong Le, the need to campaign and protect the caves and the forests within them remains as urgent as ever. Rampant development continues to blight Vietnamese landscapes; this year, an enormous casino will open on Phu Quoc Island, while the pollution of Ha Long Bay demonstrates what happens when nature is sacrificed for tourism. Nobody wants Son Doong to be the next regretprinte.

“The more signatures we have [on our petition], the more likes on Facebook, it helps send a message directly to the cable car company,” she said. “It used to be Sun Group, and the reason they pulled out of the project is because of our followers. The easy thing people in Vietnam and around the world can do right away would be to sign the petition and follow us on Facebook. Talk about it, share it, and raise your voice.”

Reprinted with permission from Mongabay, the world’s premier environmental science and conservation news and information site.  The original can be found here.