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The College Course That Trains Vietnam's Future Wildlife Conservationists

A course based in Vinh aims to give Vietnamese students who want to change the way animals are treated in Vietnam a chance to make a difference.

Growing up in Hanoi, Ha Anh Nguyen became interested in the topic of environmental protection at a time when stories about the wildlife trade were becoming more prominent.

Recent years have seen a torrent of upsetting news related to wildlife, from the poaching of Vietnam's last wild rhino to gruesome bear bile farms and discoveries of enormous shipments of pangolin scales and elephant tusks.

"I was studying international studies in university, but when I finished I wanted to focus more on environmental protection," Nguyen told Saigoneer. "I pursued a master's degree in biodiversity conservation in the United Kingdom, and that's how I entered the field."

However, even with a relevant degree, she struggled to find work focused on wildlife. "It's actually quite difficult to get a job in this field in Vietnam when you're not within the network," Nguyen said.

In early 2019, she saw advertisements for a new course called Combating Illegal Wildlife Trade created by the conservation NGO WildAct and held at the University of Vinh.

"I had been following Trang Nguyen [WildAct's founder] for a while by then, and I thought 'this is it, this is the opportunity for me to get in the network'," Nguyen said.

Nguyen (in white shirt) at an awareness-raising event for children in Cao Bang Province. Photo provided by Nguyen.

She applied and got a scholarship and attended the three-month course with four other people.

"The course is really straightforward," Nguyen shared. "It helps you get an idea about conservation jobs in Vietnam, and with a focus on the wildlife trade. I think one of the strengths is that it was able to gather guest speakers from different organizations in Vietnam, and they talked about their experience, their work, what they've been doing."

She was also excited to discover that this was indeed the right opportunity to get into the sector.

"After the course I had a one-month placement at TRAFFIC, and after that I got a notice from Fauna & Flora International (FFI) that they were recruiting for an intern position with the possibility of becoming an assistant," Nguyen recalled. "We had met during the course, so they reached out to me and I applied, and now I'm a project assistant there."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nguyen didn't have a lot of family support at first, as conservation is not a well-known career in Vietnam.

"I didn't get the most supportive reaction, especially from my parents," she said. "My sister wasn't supportive either, and before I entered the course in Vinh, my mother was actually against it. She thought it was crazy that I had quit my job to take the course."

An FFI project site in Cao Bang Province. Photo by Michael Tatarski.

Cody Robbie, who works for CHANGE, the Saigon-based environmental NGO, attended WildAct's first course in Vinh, recalled a similar response.

Through 2017 and 2018, he was working as a manager at an IELTS and business skills training center in Saigon, "working like crazy every day, becoming distant from my family and friends."

He had known Trang, from WildAct, for years, and in December of 2018 he resigned in order to focus on this future. When he saw the post about the wildlife trade course beginning, he applied immediately.

"I didn't expect my family to support me, and they didn't," Robbie said. "They gave me a lot of reasons and were disappointed, and had questions about my salary, future benefits and more."

An adolescent and an adult Tonkin snub-nosed monkey. Photo by Ryab Deboodt.

However, he never regretted the decision.

"The WildAct team was supportive, sympathetic, enthusiastic and patient," he shared. "It was not only a course which provided the basic needs for starting a conservation career, but it also helped us learn about what other conservation organizations are doing in Vietnam and all over the world."

Robbie went on: "I would've never known about the pangolin, the most heavily-trafficked wild animal in the world, or about the many other beautiful creatures whose populations are declining if I hadn't attended the course."

Nguyen, for her part, believes the course was life-changing.

"I hope that the course will encourage more young people to enter the field, and I know how hard it is to get into the circle, but the course can help you with that," she said. "And in the future, I hope more and more people get interested in the environment and care about wildlife. We are now facing a pandemic that came from the wildlife trade, so I hope that people will become more aware of the situation and stop the trade."

Robbie also has no second thoughts about his career change: "In my old job, my mind always went blank when I thought about the future. I had no idea what I was doing."

He encourages anyone with an interest in nature and conservation to consider the WildAct course: "I can't picture the future of conservation in Vietnam at the moment, but I do know that we don't have much time left if people don't stop hunting these species."

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