Thai Van Nguyen: Protecting the Pangolin, the World’s Most Trafficked Animal

June 21, 2021

By Thai Van Nguyen

I was born in a rural area in Vietnam, near Cuc Phuong—the first national park in Vietnam, in the Ninh Binh province. During my childhood, I was proud to live close to the park—a marvelous home to thousands of species—but I was horrified to witness wild animals being captured or killed for many unreasonable purposes. Seeing that started a fire in me to protect them.

After graduating from the Vietnam National University of Agriculture, I worked for the Carnivore & Pangolins Conservation Program (CPCP) in Cuc Phuong National Park. The knowledge I gained from university seemed insufficient and failed to present a complete picture of the current plight of our wild animals. I discovered that the reality is much worse than I had understood. During my years working at CPCP, I learned that many animals died after rescue and a majority of them could not return to the wild because of behavioral changes and permanent disabilities. On many occasions, I found myself speechless when I found that a pangolin had died during the transport process, while keeping her baby alive by curling up her scales to protect the child. I perceived that pangolins, just like us, have motherhood and deserve a normal life in nature.

In 2014, I founded Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, which is like an emergency call about the critical need for more effective solutions to secure a future for Vietnamese wildlife. Since then, I have worked with dozens of colleagues to fight together to support Vietnamese wildlife through holistic approaches, including wildlife rescue and rehabilitation, habitat protection, educational outreach, conservation breeding, species conservation, and advocacy. To be chosen by the Goldman Environmental Prize for my work is a great honor for me and my team.

Pangolins are well known as the most trafficked animal in the world. This is the consequence of ignorance and the consumption of pangolins for illegal purposes, as well as a false belief in their medicinal value. This has happened not just for the pangolin but also for the rhino—and caused the extinction of rhinos in Vietnam. Faced with that unwanted scenario for pangolins, I am very motivated to do whatever is necessary to protect their numbers in Vietnam.

I have spent considerable time researching pangolins—their living habits, reproductive life, and diseases they face. The more I learn about the pangolin, the more love I have for that special species. Since 2014, in collaboration with the CPCP in Cuc Phuong National Park, Pu Mat National Park, security forces, and rangers across Vietnam, we have run a hundred rescue trips, rescuing 1,888 animals of 40 different species. We have rescued 1,540 pangolins and, after treatment and rehabilitation, some 60% of them were successfully released back into the wild. Our team has taken footage of pangolin offspring, showing ongoing recovery of wildlife populations.

In 2018, we established the first anti-poaching team in Vietnam, co-managed by an NGO and a government agency. This unique team has demolished 9,701 animal traps, dismantled 775 illegal camps, confiscated 78 guns, and arrested 558 poachers. Our report shows that the threat of illegal poaching in Pu Mat National Park has declined by over 80% in its three years of work. After the success of the first team, a second anti-poaching unit was deployed with eight new members in March 2019, to bring the total number of anti-poaching members to 16 and expanding the patrol area to a total of 950 square kilometers. We are now expanding the model to five different national parks in Vietnam and our hope is to keep going.

Another key goal I have is to ensure that every Vietnamese person knows and understands Vietnam’s wildlife, then I want to encourage their love, appreciation, and willingness to take action to save our diverse wildlife. We have implemented numerous programs regarding education outreach, building capacity, demand reduction, social research, and alternative livelihood development in conservation hotspots.

In order to do the most comprehensive conservation, I focus special attention on the educational outreach for the younger generation in Vietnam. With the hope that Vietnamese youth will be able to make major change in the future for Vietnam’s wildlife, our team organizes many events and workshops on wildlife conservation education for students. We built and ran the first Pangolin Conservation Education Center in Vietnam so that children (and also adults) can come to learn, experience, and connect with rare nature and wildlife.

Personally, I do not think that what I am doing is a job because, when something is your passion, it just becomes a part of your life and the air that you breathe.

To support our continued success, I sincerely call you to join us at http://svw.vn/ to act together and spread our love for Vietnam’s wildlife. Thank you!


About the author:
Thai Van NguyenThai Van Nguyen is the founder and executive director of Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, an NGO working to save animals from illegal trade, protect wildlife strongholds, and monitor endangered species in Vietnam. Thai is a champion of the pangolin, the world’s most heavily trafficked mammal and an IUCN Red List species. Thai won the Goldman Prize for Asia in 2021.