Stand on top of a four-wheel drive car and look out over a central Kenyan game reserve with a bucket head- what is this? Trang Nguyen and hiking boots stand apart from most Vietnamese who prefer European charm and East Asian wonders for their holiday and photographic memories.
But Trang is no ordinary traveler.
The 31-year-old founder and CEO of WildAct, a Vietnamese conservation NGO, travels the world as a natural scientist.
In a fast-growing economy where most people see lucrative jobs in business and finance, and the government views civil society with skepticism, if not hostility, she is striking.
“My parents were not too supportive when I told them what I wanted to do,” Trang told Al Jazeera, acknowledging that few Vietnamese would see what she does as a dream job.
But there is little else she can imagine.
” I enjoy doing research, and I too [have] I spent a lot of my time in the field, in remote areas and sometimes in dangerous situations as well. “No parents would want their child to go through that,” she said.
Vietnam, which emerged as a a billion-dollar global wildlife trade hotspot, serves as a transportation route and an important consumer market. According to the British Environmental Research Agency (EIA), Vietnamese crime syndicates have been documented as poachers and smugglers in a myriad of source countries across Africa and Asia, from Malaysia to Mozambique.
The EIA says Vietnam has been involved in more than 600 illegal trade seizures in the 17 years to 2019, including the deaths of at least 228 tigers, 610 rhinos, 15,779 elephants and 65,510 pangolins – all in critical danger. The group based its figures on publicly available data on seizures.
In terms of consumption of tiger parts and products, the Vietnamese are the second one Chinese.
Many people believe that what they call ‘bone glue’, or cao in Vietnamese, which comes from animals such as tigers and monkeys, can help treat joint-related diseases. Rhino hornsMeanwhile, it is a symbol of prosperity, and some believe that the horn can cure cancer.
Trang is herself a survivor of colon cancer, and a remark from her doctor struck that such beliefs are dangerous as it is necessary to treat early treatment with many cancers.
It was a ‘powerful message’, she said in an interview with the World Wildlife Fund this year and an effective way to meet the persistent demand for rhino horn.
Hostility and denial
Increasing concern about zoonotic diseases in the aftermath of COVID-19, which was widely believed to have jumped from animals to humans, helped put the issue of wildlife trade back on the world’s policy agenda.
Vietnam last year issued an order to stop the already illegal importation of wildlife, including parts and products. Conservationists have said they support the directive, but they also warn that much work needs to be done, including the implementation of the directive.
Trang, who started taking part in environmental activities when she was a teenager and obtained her PhD in biodiversity management in the UK two years ago, says working on game trade is not easy because it is a sensitive topic for both the Vietnamese authorities and for ordinary people. citizens.
In several public conservation forums in which she has participated, Trang says people have reacted with hostility and denial to Vietnam’s position as a hotspot for wildlife trade.
‘I dare not say that I am an expert; i just spent a lot of time researching this topic. It is unmistakable that the use of wild animals exists in Vietnam, ‘she said. ‘There are Vietnamese people abroad, especially in Africa, who are directly involved in illegal and cross-border and transcontinental game trade. It has an effect on the Vietnamese diaspora and the image of the country. “
It is a reputation that has also made skeptics of Trang’s intentions, she said.
In Africa, she says, she has also encountered hostility — with some people accepting that she should work against the protection of wildlife because so many Asians were involved in a high-profile wildlife trade on the continent.
In Vietnam itself, wildlife protection is also a challenge. Some of the species are seriously endangered, according to the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species, is the Vietnamese pheasant and dam dam. Saola, a antelope-like animal, has also been the victim of a massive increase in hunting to provide for the illegal trade in game, according to the WWF.
Vietnam was one of the worst-performing countries in Asia (including India and some Southeast Asian countries) along with Myanmar, according to animal protection policies and laws, according to the World Animal Protection International Index 2020 Index.
According to Trang, a ‘very damaging assumption’ about the conservation sector is that authorities and environmental police are doing nothing to limit the exploitation of wildlife. In her experience, Trang says she has met many rangers and police who are committed to eradicating the problem and are willing to work with NGOs like her.
However, she says that many Vietnamese law enforcers have limited experience in investigating and addressing wildlife crimes compared to other countries due to a lack of access to education and training. This is above and beyond the problem of corruption.
“Corruption plays an important role in this trade, as in many other crimes, and it is crucial to address this issue in order to combat the illegal trade in wildlife,” she said, without giving a specific example. give.
‘They have a lot of experience in investigating other things, but [investigating] wildlife crimes and animal-related matters have only recently been a matter in Vietnam. This is something we have to acknowledge and support them with, ”she said.
WildAct has offered training programs for local communities and rangers, where they can exchange knowledge, plan and implement planning projects, such as removing animal traps and rescuing trapped animals, in various provinces in Vietnam.
The organization works with Animal Doctors International, a veterinary clinic and animal welfare consultant with offices in Vietnam and Cambodia, to train rangers and WildAct’s community conservation team on administering first aid to injured animals and to members themselves during patrols. Although often overlooked, it is important skills to improve the survival rates of wildlife after rescue, as well as the well-being of rangers and community members, according to Trang.
“The right way should be to empower as many people as possible,” she said.
Trang sought to empower women and to make WildAct a bastion of gender equality.
According to Mark Spicer, a former program manager who worked at WildAct for two years until the end of 2020, Trang’s advocacy is not lip service.
“This is an important part of where WildAct comes from, with Trang as founder and director, and her experience, and the experiences of conservation colleagues in Vietnam and abroad, have only enhanced it,” Spicer said. the only male employee by the time he left the organization.
Spicer, who hails from the UK and has a background in conservation and ecology, says the work he did at WildAct was ‘unlike anything I’ve ever done’.
“That said, there is a lot that needs to be done in conservation in Vietnam, and for everyone involved, it’s a challenge, but there are some great organizations and a lot of motivated people trying to do it,” he said. said.
While founding WildAct in 2015, Trang also worked for reputable environmental organizations in the early years of the NGO’s operations, as a Technical Adviser on Illegal Wildlife Trade in Cambodia for Fauna and Flora International in the United Kingdom, and as liaison officer in Mozambique. for the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society. In 2018, she was awarded the prestigious Future for Nature award for her work in combating the illegal trade in wildlife.
Hong Hoang, founder and CEO of CHANGE, a Vietnamese NGO that focuses on addressing the country’s critical environmental challenges, says people like Trang are rare in Vietnam.
She first met Trang when the latter, when a teenager, volunteered for a program hosted by the WWF, Hong’s former employer. The two remain in contact and occasionally cross paths in the small world of Vietnam’s environmental campaigns.
For CHANGE’s research, Hong also relies on the conservationist’s expertise in animal studies to help her identify a captured animal on social media or news articles.
Hong, a pioneer and prominent voice in the climate movement with more than two decades of experience, says there has been a ‘snowball effect’ and that young people are increasingly interested in environmental issues.
The government is also taking more notice than before, making it less risky for people to express their concerns in a country where discord is hardly tolerated.
“I must acknowledge that the government cares more about environmental issues,” she said, adding that there was pressure from the international community and social media to raise users’ awareness of the impact some issues such as air pollution have on their health, jobs and the economy. .
Yet Hong believes there is still a long way to go.
“I think it’s not at the level enough to build a strong movement in a population of 98 million,” she said. “I hope that there will be more people like Trang in Vietnam, and that there will be more opportunities for young people in conservation and wildlife.”
In August, police in the north-central province of Nghe An rescued 17 adult tigers from an enclosed cellar that was part of an illegal breeding operation. A few days earlier, in the same province, two men had been arrested after seven live tiger cubs were found in their car.
According to Trang, scientists in Kenya in the same week as this attack successfully created embryos to save the functionally extinct northern white rhino.
“This is great news, but in a perfect world where there would be no poaching – this species does not need human help to just ‘survive’,” she said.
“Similarly, these tigers should not be locked in cages, but the attacks have given us hope, as they show successful cooperation between the authorities and non-governmental organizations to tackle this problem.