This blog was originally published on the Conservation Careers website, which can be found here.
Conservation Careers writer, Marie Conroy, interviews CLP alumna Minh Nguyen to uncover why she’s committed her education and career to saving the Critically Endangered “barking deer” of Vietnam and Laos.
It may seem strange that an animal only discovered by science in the late 1990s is now listed as Critically Endangered. But this is the case for the large-antlered muntjac, a rare deer species only found in the dense rainforests of the Annamite mountains of Vietnam and Laos.
Bizarrely, the species was only discovered when they were found as trophies in the homes of local people. Today, the animal is under severe threat from unsustainable poaching and without action, faces extinction.
The threat is so severe that Minh Nguyen has moved from her home country of Vietnam to undertake a PhD at the University of Colorado, USA. Her ambition is to help save the endangered animal and other ground-dwelling animals that fall prey to the intensive poaching.
Introducing Minh Nguyen
CLP alumna Minh Nguyen grew up in Quangnam province in the centre of Vietnam before her family moved to Ho Chi Minh City. While living in Ho Chi Minh City – the largest city in Vietnam – she never forgot the natural beauty of where she grew up next to the Annamite mountains. It was in these mountains she first became interested in the natural world and spent hours in the local fields, wetlands and woods watching wildlife.
Initially, a career in conservation wasn’t something Minh pursued, mainly because she was not aware it existed as a career. And, as a young woman, she was encouraged to study banking or medicine. But instead, she chose to study biotechnology because she felt it would have some biology elements to it, and in that way, she could get closer to her favourite topic – studying animals.
In Vietnam, your career chooses you!
One day an announcement from the biology faculty grabbed her attention. It was asking students to join a field trip to look for rare turtles in a forest. She quickly volunteered and from that experience Minh started to get involved with wildlife conservation and a career in conservation beckoned.
After her studies she became involved with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) – Vietnam program, and this gave her the opportunity to get to know Vietnamese wildlife better. And, while she was confident she would have a career in conservation, she explained to me that in Vietnam there is a belief that you do not choose your own career. She laughs as she says, that in Vietnam there is a saying that “the career chooses you, it’s not you that chooses your career. And I really hoped conservation would choose me”, she adds.
The barking deer
Minh’s next big step was to decide what to focus her efforts on. After some research, she discovered that a lot of attention was being given to Saola – Vietnam’s most critically endangered animal.
And, while substantial effort is needed to help save that animal, she realised that she could make a bigger contribution to conservation if she focused her attention on the plight of the large-antlered muntjac. The muntjac is an animal she knew from her youth and one that would become extinct without focused effort.
Her thinking on this proved correct when she spoke to conservation specialists who confirmed that to save the species there needed to be a more cohesive plan of action. This included raising awareness of the plight of the species and having a champion of the cause. With this insight, Minh spent the next two years developing her plan of how she could be most effective in preventing its extinction. She travelled deep into the dense forests and spoke with various experts to help bring her vision to life.
Driftnets of the land
As part of her initial research, Minh visited the mountains many times. During these visits she began to understand first-hand the extent of the threat from the snares which litter the landscape. A practice referred to as “driftnets of the land”.
As she explains: “when you look at the view and the hills, you would never imagine that they are covered in snares. Very few ground dwelling large animals can escape capture, as the snares are indiscriminate in what they catch. This is especially true for species like the large-antlered muntjac and saola.” This sad discovery strengthened her determination to act and help the muntjac and other animals.
According to Minh, while some local people leave snares, the vast majority are left by specialised hunters and poachers who come from different regions in Vietnam to supply the illegal bushmeat trade. And while rangers patrol the forest and remove snares, there are simply too many to stop the mass poaching. And they struggle to monitor the activities in the vast forests.
Therefore, after two years of research, Minh is now undertaking a PhD so she can develop an effective strategy. She wants to focus on “something that is practical for conservation” not purely research. Her field-based conservation approach will determine how many snares could lead to the extinction of the animal and how many must be removed for the animals to survive. She also wants to develop a strategy on how to monitor and make the forest safe for the animals. And in parallel, consider a captive breeding programme, so the animals can be reintroduced and recover in the wild.
Cross border collaboration
Working alongside Minh on one of her most recent activities are her committed Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) project team members in Vietnam and Laos. She feels incredibly lucky to have their support and share the work between the two countries. As she says: “No one can work alone, it makes all the difference to have this co-operation”.
In addition to her CLP team is the support from experienced conservationists and organisations including WCS, Asian Arks, Saola Foundation, Saola Working Group, Southern Institute of Ecology and Nong Lam University. “I feel lucky and proud that others are interested and bring many different perspectives that can help large-antlered muntjac conservation be successful,” she says. “It’s amazing the support they give me, helping me with advice and training for my development.”
Best part of conservation
One of Minh’s favourite activities is to be in the forest. “I love being in the forest. Seeing the animals. Sitting still as they forage for food and being able to quietly observe them. It’s a beautiful feeling.” But sadly, she also knows that their foraging on the ground will lead them into danger as they can get easily captured in the many snares. This risk drives her to study but also makes her impatient to get back into the field.
Tough working conditions
And while being in the forest is a beautiful experience for Minh, it does present tough conditions. The landscape is very steep and hilly. It takes a lot of energy to hike through it. And typically, it’s men in the forest, not women. This can make people concerned for her. But it doesn’t hold her back and she doesn’t feel unsafe. Instead, her focus is to ensure she is not a burden to the people helping her such as forest rangers and local people. “You need to be very independent and to be a really strong person,” Minh tells me. “It also helps to have a good natural instinct to work in the forest. To be able to move around and carry things quite far”.
Finding your meaning
Considering her own journey into conservation, Minh shares her advice for other budding conservationists. “I often tell others, keep doing the things you like to do. But if you’re not clear on what you want to do, that’s okay. If you want to work in conservation, if you love wildlife, then try different things. There are many options. Find your talents and what gives you the most meaning. And if you have a strong desire and have a strong interest, then even if you do fail, you will stand up and try again.”
As a young conservationist with little experience, Minh leans on the expertise of those around her. Which is another approach she recommends to other young conservationists. “Talk to specialists, ask questions, they can help hugely”, she says. “The people helping me are really wonderful and connect me with other experts. And then gradually you can develop your own ideas on what you want to do.”
Building trust as a young conservationist
However, her lack of experience is one of the biggest challenges she faces in pursuing her ambition which is something she needs to build to succeed. As she explains, “Will I be trusted to go into the forest? Will they trust me enough to let me develop the project and to cooperate with me?” But she is showing them she can do this. Her experience working in the field, her ability to work deep in the forest and showing the result of what she has done so far is building the trust she needs.
And now, people are accepting the fact that she is working in conservation. But they do worry for her as a young woman, often working in the forest with only men. Surprisingly, this is something she sees as a positive as she is grateful for their concern, and it makes her feel part of a family: “It makes me feel like we are brother and sister”, she says. “They are supporting me, helping me manage the risks and trying to do something new that will be good for future generations”.
And is it worth it? “Yes” she beams, “I think that I’m very lucky to work in this field, because I can always see so many amazing, beautiful scenes and wildlife that most people never have a chance to see. So, I think that’s something that makes me very lucky”.
About the author
Marie Conroy is a communications professional from Ireland. She is a keen traveller, loves sailing and exploring the natural world, taking lots of wildlife photos along the way. Her dream is to enable conservation projects by combining her skills in communications and passion for writing, with her lifelong love for nature.
If Minh’s story makes you want to follow in her footsteps, then why not apply for one of our 2022 Team Awards? You could gain funding for your conservation projects, access to mentorship and professional training, as well as opportunities to build connections with other conservationists around the world. The application deadline is 10 October, 2021, and applications must be submitted via our online portal. Find out more information about our awards and other projects we have supported in the past.