Young wildlife conservation scientist Trang Nguyen, full name Nguyễn Thị Thu Trang, has dedicated herself to protecting our wonderful world. She talks to Minh Thu about the ambition and enthusiasm
Trang Nguyen was born in 1990 in Hà Nội and witnessed how animals were cruelly exploited as a child. She decided to dedicate her life to wildlife in Việt Nam. Trang finished her PhD in Biodiversity Management at the University of Kent, England. Last year, she was named in the BBC’s list of top 100 inspiring and influential women around the world and was listed among 30 young influential people under 30 by Forbes Vietnam. She received the annual award of Future for Nature Foundation 2018.
Earlier this month, her graphic novel Chang Hoang Dã – Gấu (Chang is Wild about Bears) was published. It aims to raise people’s awareness of endangered species, the friendship between people and wildlife as well as the hard work of activists to protect animals.
Inner Sanctum: Congratulations on your newly-published book on the journey of a little girl who goes to save wild animals. Why did you publish a graphic novel on wildlife?
As a wildlife conservation scientist, I always priorities activities that can increase awareness and understanding of the public on the environment and nature. Chang is Wild about Bears is a book created for young readers, to nurture their love and curiosity for the wonderful world we are living in. Nothing can do that better than a graphic novel.
Inner Sanctum: Do you plan to create more graphic novels?
Chang is Wild about Bears is receiving attention not only in Việt Nam but also overseas. One of the largest publishers in the UK Pan MacMillan is discussing with Kim Đồng Publishing House to buy the book’s copyright for English publication worldwide. Which is amazing.
In the meantime, my co-author, painter Jeet Zdung, and I are working hard on our second book Chang is Wild about Elephants – which tells a real story of the horrific situation that our Asian elephants are coping in elephant camps – where they are being used for entertainment (elephant riding and circus).
Each of these books will highlight a conservation issue. For example, Chang is Wild about Bears talks about the issue of bear bile farming in Southeast Asia and how it is pushing our bears to extinction, Chang is Wild about Elephants highlights elephants being abused for entertainment and the book after that will talk about the trade of lorises as pets and so on.
Inner Sanctum: How did you prepare for this project? How did you and illustrator Jeet Zdung team up?
Writing the book was simple but finding an artist to transfer words and imaginations into pictures was a different story. I have known Zdung for a few years and he did some voluntary work for my organisation WildAct, so I know him well as a friend and I knew his talent would contribute greatly to this book. It took a while for me to convince him to collaborate with me on this project, partly because Zdung is rather busy with his own art projects and working with publishers in Japan. But once he was hooked on the story of the bear Sorya, it was much easier.
Inner Sanctum: As well as raising awareness, will the profits from the book aid wildlife conservation?
I'm donating all royalties from the book toward wildlife conservation in Việt Nam. For example, royalties for the first print of this book worth US$2,400 were donated to Free the Bears Fund – an amazing organisation working tirelessly to rescue bears from bear bile farming and those who are being kept as pets. This funding will help them rescue bears in the country. The following payment from the publishing house will remain with my organisation WildAct – where we invest in educating children about wildlife conservation and environmental protection.
The funding from my first book Trở Về Nơi Hoang Dã (Back to the Wilderness) helped us create six different libraries for children living across Việt Nam to learn about nature and wildlife. It also helped us provide scholarships for youths to study and be trained in a professional way to become wildlife conservationists.
Inner Sanctum: What does WildAct do in Việt Nam?
WildAct is a conservation charity and non-governmental organisation based in Việt Nam. Our work is dedicated to raising Vietnamese people's awareness of conservation issues by providing information and education programmes for the public. Our mission is to inspire, motivate and empower society and individuals to engage in the science-based conservation of threatened species and ecosystems.
We are the first organisation in the country working with the Ministry of Education and Training and the University of Vinh City (the central province of Nghệ An) to create the first master's course in wildlife conservation to build national capacity in fighting the illegal wildlife trade and improving captive wild animal welfare.
Inner Sanctum: How has being from an Asian country where wild animals are exploited and killed for medicine, food, clothes, entertainment, conflicts with humans and deforestation impacted you?
Being able to witness what’s happening to nature and wildlife motivated me to work harder and get to where I am today. It is also an advantage when doing undercover work overseas, as many people from other parts of the world assume if you are Vietnamese or Chinese then you are consumers of wildlife parts or worse, an illegal wildlife trader.
Inner Sanctum: Can you share with us some memories of your career?
In South Africa, I worked closely with the police to stop illegal wildlife trafficking. As a Vietnamese woman, it was easy for me to talk to the dealers. They were not scared of me. They showed me rhino horns and other products from wild animals, anything I asked for. I followed them for day after day and talked to them with a hidden camera and voice recorder. When we had enough information, we decided to make an arrest. That morning, I asked them to go with me to get a huge amount of cash for elephant tusks and other illegal products. I got in the car with three armed criminals. Then, believe it or not, the hidden camera inside my coat ran out of battery, it kept flashing constantly. I was so terrified. If they found it, I would have been shot. Then I let my hair down to cover the camera. Luckily it stopped flashing. When I got out of the car and felt safe, I touched my right ear, the sign for the police. All the men involved were arrested.
Inner Sanctum: What plans do you have for the next few years?
In the next two years, I plan to finish working on the book series Chang is Wild. That’s a big deadline to work on with Jeet Zdung. My third book called 100 Things I Do for the Planet will be published by Nhã Nam Company in summer this year, which is very exciting. The book is a collection of small, simple, easy thing that every single one of us can do to support our planet.
At the same time, my organisation WildAct is growing fast. We are continuing to work with the University of Vinh City to build up our master's course on wildlife conservation for Vietnamese youths. We just kick-started another programme to support and empower women in conservation and another programme to reduce the amount of plastic waste entering the ocean.
Inner Sanctum: What does it take to be a wildlife activist?
To make it clear, I am not an activist only. I’m a wildlife conservation scientist, a person who works full-time to conserve nature and species.
An activist is a person who campaigns to bring about political or social change. They can be anyone in society and not necessarily work in the sector that they are campaigning in, for example, a journalist or a teacher can be a wildlife activist.
If you are an activist then the most important thing you need to do is act. Whether it’s speaking out for animal’s rights, or organising a campaign to urge the government to change its policies regarding the trade and consumption of wildlife, the scale doesn't matter, as all your small activities will add up and create a big change in our society. VNS