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The Wildlife Artist Who Paints the Beauty of Vietnam’s Endangered Nature

Dao Van Hoang, a self-taught painter, welcomed us into his studio at Le Petit Musée in Paris. Surrounded by watercolors of exotic plants and paintings of wild animals, he shared with us his life story. Or, how he fell in love with nature from a young age, continuously trained to become a recognized artist, and got involved in wildlife conservation.

Smiling eyes and a sun-weathered face. This is what we notice first when Hoang opens the door. While heading to his studio, we can easily picture him with an Indiana Jones-esque adventurer's hat. The interview, expected to last one hour, turns into an all-afternoon friendly chat over honeyed tea. Until the light fades, accompanied by pinkish color tones reminding us of the late hour, we lose sense of time while listening to Hoang’s story.

“As far back as I remember, I had chalk in my hand, drawing princesses and animals on the floor. My mother always encouraged my passion. She was the one who took me to the Saigon Zoo, where I had my first encounter with wild animals,” Hoang says.

At the young age of 15, Hoang had to leave his mother and his country. After leaving Vietnam on a boat in 1979, he spent over a month in a refugee camp in Indonesia, before being sent to a refugee home near Paris. “This is where I received my first anatomy book as a Christmas gift,” he recalls.

Living in France was a unique cultural experience and mind-blowing art immersion for a Vietnamese teenager. A striking memory to him was the discovery of a book by Robert Bateman, a Canadian artist and naturalist, “who is still my hero,” confides Hoang.

Hoang is constantly drawing and training as an artist. However, he found that being an artist was not a real career according to Vietnamese tradition. So he spent a few years working in IT until a friend found him a job in a Chinese printing company. He spent his weekends drawing menu illustrations for Vietnamese restaurants, all located in the “Asian” 13th district of Paris.

When Vietnam opened in the 1980s, Hoang finally reunited with his mother. After a stint in the French military and an advertising firm, 1996, after 16 years in France, Hoang took a three-month sabbatical to spend time with his mother in Vietnam.

He ended up staying here. In 2006, his mother passed away at 92. “My brothers and sisters were all living abroad," Hoang shares. "With my mother gone, I was uncertain about leaving or staying. But then I met my wife, and we got married in 2009.”

His career as a wildlife painter started in 2014. Hoang found out about a conference in Hanoi held by the International Primatological Society: “I contacted them to exhibit some of my paintings of monkeys during their event. They accepted and this was a turning point! After this first step, I finally dared to introduce myself as an artist.”

A painting of a mysterious sao la.

Since then, Hoang has been invited to 13 exhibitions, the last of which was held in Phuket during the International Bat Research Conference 2019.

Since his return to Vietnam, Hoang’s work has been intertwined with species conservation projects. In 1996, he met an NGO team working in Cat Tien National Park. With them, he became involved in a conservation project for the Javan rhinoceros.

“The project ended in 2004, and the last Javan rhino of Vietnam was shot by poachers in 2010,” explains Hoang, a sad look on his face. He collaborates regularly with national parks, nature reserves and NGOs. He goes with them on field trips because, “to be able to paint animals requires huge amounts of research on their habitat, diet and behavior.”

Hoang painting in the wild.

While it is difficult to know exactly how much biodiversity remains in Vietnam, Hoang tries to depict the current situation of wildlife conservation in the country: “There are currently 54 national parks and 80 nature reserves. This creates more habitat for species conservation. However, animal rescue itself is a slow process and you must think globally. The disappearance of a single species can lead to the disappearance of an entire ecosystem.”

To illustrate the complexity of conservation projects, Hoang shares the example of wild bears: “You might certainly recall the souvenir bottles with a scorpion, or a snake, immersed in alcohol? It was also common to find bear paws floating in the yellow liquid.” Used in traditional medicine, bear bile is also a valuable good, and in the 1970s, an innovative Korean technique allowed people to extract it without killing the animal.

Consequently, the number of cage-reared bears increased, along with new ethical issues. Poor breeding conditions and increasing surgeries led to numerous infections and deaths. Holding caged bears is now technically illegal, but the practice still exists, and according to Hoang, over 90% of bears in Vietnam come from domestic breeding and can no longer be released into the wild.

Sketches from Bach Ma National Parl in Thua Thien-Hue Province.

On the bright side, new species are still being discovered in Vietnam. A new variety of ginger was identified a few years ago, while some primate species have seen their numbers increase.

Hoang is conscious that change comes from raising awareness through education. “I work with many interpretation centers to make them more interactive,” he said.

He also currently oversees educational programs for Bidoup Nui Ba National Park. “I created a children’s notebook called Discover Nature With Your Pencil. It is intended to be brought in the forest, to learn, draw, and have fun. I like this type of project because it involves all disciplines: space design, illustration, writing, communication, and pedagogy.”

In Saigon, Hoang and his wife also focus on education with Nature, Art & Fun: “My wife started it in 2019, in our flat! Since then, we have hired teachers, with whom I craft the educational programs. We organize trips to nature reserves and art workshops. Everything is connected. For example, we work on symmetry, found everywhere in nature, and applied during art class.”

A painting of a leopard.

As we are still kids at heart, we finish our interview with a little game called “pick your favorites,” in which Hoang had to choose three fauna and flora species. He first picks the sao la, sometimes known as the "Asian unicorn," a deer-like species that hasn't been seen in the wild in decades. Hoang's other two choices were the clouded panther and the vine serpent, while for flora he chose begonias, ferns and moss.

As the sun sets, we leave Hoang’s studio with gifts: a series of superb postcards with his illustrations of endangered primates. He also advised us to read a French book called L’humanité en péril (Humanity at Stake) by Fred Vargas. We closed the studio door on Hoang still dreaming of a planet-scale collaborative action “that could change our world.”

You can find more of Dao Van Hoang's work on his website.

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