Study UK global award winner Trang Nguyen is the founder of WildAct-Vietnam and an alumni of MSc Primate Conservation at Brookes. Here she talks about being inspired by Sir David Attenborough, overcoming barriers to a career in conservation and risking her life to help protect wildlife.
“I got in this car with two illegal wildlife traders. They had guns. While we were driving across the city, my hidden camera was running out of battery and it had this light that started flashing.
“I was sitting right next to the driver and I was terrified. This was life threatening. These people operate like the Mafia, they don’t just do illegal wildlife trading but human trafficking and other terrible things.
“Luckily they didn’t see the light and I was able to block it with my hand. But it was really, really scary.”
Taking part in sting operations against criminal gangs is far above and beyond the call of duty for the average student. But Trang Nguyen was not an average student and for her it was a way to directly combat the illegal wildlife trade. Her day-to-day work is not normally so dramatic, but is just as focused on doing what is needed to save the wild animals she loves.
A lifelong passion
Trang’s career has been driven by a love of wildlife, which started as a child watching television in Vietnam.
“I’ve always wanted to work in conservation. When I was small, I was interested in nature from watching Sir David Attenborough documentaries – they were really inspiring.
“But back then people in Vietnam didn’t think conservation was a proper job. They thought it was something rich people or people in the West did. In this part of the world, people were more into working in business, making money, rather than going into the forest to protect wildlife – that wasn’t considered normal.”
Trang chose to break from the ‘normal’. In order to pursue a career in conservation, she came to the UK to study Wildlife Conservation at Liverpool John Moores University before coming to Oxford Brookes in 2011 to do an MSc in Primate Conservation.
Studying Primate Conservation at Oxford Brookes
“Back in the day, if people in Vietnam worked in conservation it was usually in primate conservation. I’d had some experience in it and found it really interesting.
“In my undergrad, my thesis was on primates so it felt natural to go on to learn more about primate conservation. Brookes was one of the few universities that had that specific course.”
The course was both enjoyable and expanded the possibilities for Trang’s future career.
“I really enjoyed my time at Brookes – working with people from different countries, different backgrounds. My lecturers were very positive, encouraging me to do whatever I want and follow my curiosity. And my supervisor, Giuseppe Donati, was really supportive.
“When we were in class, students and lecturers were separate. But then we’d hang out together – there wasn’t a barrier between us.
“We had this small community, including alumni from the previous year and PhD students. And we had these primate labs where we would go together and work. We’d stay all day and then we’d go for food together and go to the pub.”
One of the important professional skills Trang learnt at Brookes was how to write grant proposals – something she has done many times in her career since.
“Giuseppe really encouraged us to write our own grant proposals for our research. This was the first time that I’d learnt how to do this. So when I went to Madagascar for three months to do research on brown-collared lemurs, I managed to get a £3,000 grant, which was an amazing help.
“After 12 months on the course, I’d really improved my grant proposal writing skills. It’s so important for conservation that you secure funding for research and to manage a team in the field.”
Combating the illegal wildlife trade
After graduating from Brookes, Trang continued to study in the UK to do an MPhil in Conservation at the University of Cambridge. But she didn’t want to be a student forever and in 2015 moved to Cambodia to work for Fauna and Flora International.
“I realised that it’s really important to do practical conservation work, not just focus purely on academic research. So I started to work on combating the illegal wildlife trade.
“I was looking at the illegal trade of elephant ivory from Africa to Asia, especially for sale in Cambodia. I supported the team in Cambodia with ivory identification training and in setting up a forensic lab.
“We were able to support the first ever court case in Cambodia relating to the sale of illegal ivory – that was really huge and got a lot of attention.”
At the same time, Trang was surveying the growth of ivory sales in Cambodia – research for her PhD in Biodiversity Management from the University of Kent. The PhD may have been based in the UK but the research took her across continents as she worked on her thesis: The impact of Traditional Asian Medicine on African Wildlife: The role of East Asian immigrants.
Going undercover in South Africa
With many endangered African animals such as elephants and rhinos threatened by high levels of poaching, much of it fuelled by demand from Asian countries, there was – and still is – a great need for effective measures to stop it.
Trang’s research brought her to South Africa and led to her involvement in sting operations, including the one described above, that led to illegal wildlife traders being arrested and prosecuted. Despite the very high risks involved, Trang was glad she got involved in this work.
“I always thought of myself as more of a researcher kind of person but then I asked myself, ‘is my research going to save these animals?’ If people are hunting them and people are buying products made from them, the research won’t help them survive.
“And I had this opportunity as an Asian person because the trade is mostly due to demand in Asian countries. During my research I realised it was easy for me to talk to people in these markets – they were more open with people from Asia and with women in particular.
“So I asked the authorities if I could help and they said yes. It was really risky doing undercover work. But if everybody is afraid of doing the work and nobody does it, who is going to save these species from extinction?”
Founding and running WildAct-Vietnam
In 2015, Trang set up WildAct-Vietnam to address practical issues in conservation.
“We have a lot of good NGOs in Vietnam but there are gaps. For example, there is no conservation course and Vietnamese people who want to work in conservation are having to study biology or forestry which are different subjects. So we are collaborating with a local university to set up a conservation course.
“We’ve got a programme tackling gender issues in wildlife conservation, which is heavily dominated by men. Sexual harassment and gender-based violence happens a lot, and it can be extremely difficult for women to work in conservation.
“Also we support rangers. They work at the forefront of conservation in really dangerous situations but have very low salaries and no insurance. Recently one ranger got shot with 17 bullets but only got $25 compensation from the government – the operation just to get the bullets out of his body cost over $200 and his family had to pay for it.”
Given all the problems conservationists face just in doing their work, it would be easy to despair. Trang is realistic enough to know these issues won’t be solved overnight. But she and her colleagues at WildAct-Vietnam and partner organisations are in the process of tackling them. And there are positive signs of progress.
“We now get parents emailing us to ask how they can support their children to work in conservation – that would never have happened 10 years ago. Rangers are asking us for support because they know about the work we do. And women in conservation, from all over the world, write to us because they know about our programme and want materials or to share lessons of their own.
”So things are definitely changing for the better, the question is whether it is quick enough to save all the species that are being pushed to extinction.”
Writing stories for a hopeful future
Trang has found a creative way of inspiring future conservationists. By writing children’s stories. Saving Sorya – Chang and the Sun Bear was published in 2021 and has won the Yoto Carnegie Medal for Illustration, and its follow-up, Saving H’non – Chang and the Elephant was published earlier this year.
Just as Sir David Attenborough’s programmes planted the seed of Trang’s love of wildlife, her books are now inspiring the next generation to help save the wonderful animals we share our planet with.
This article was edited on 31 August 2023 following news that Trang had won the Study UK Global Award for Science and Sustainability.