From Hanoi to Na Hoy: Wildlife conservation in the U.S. and Southeast Asia

By: Sarah Bates, Civil Society Development Professional Fellows Host, National Wildlife Federation

Teddy Roosevelt and Ranger Rick traveled with me to Laos and Vietnam in January, 2016. Ranger Rick’s upbeat educational message resonated well with people who are reaching out creatively to engage youth in environmental sustainability. TR’s embrace of hunting as a natural component of wildlife population and habitat restoration demanded a little more diplomatic introduction.

Through a professional exchange sponsored by the U.S. Department of State through the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI), and managed by the University of Montana’s Mansfield Center, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) hosted two young conservation professionals in October, 2015 in Missoula, Montana. In turn, I was fortunate to visit Lamngeun (Aor) Manivong of the Rural Development Agency in Vientiane, Laos, and Thai Van Nguyen of Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, located at Cuc Phuong National Park southwest of Hanoi.

Although I spent just one week in each country, the experience was remarkable. In Laos, we traveled to the village of Na Hoy to interview residents about their use of the forest in the nearby Phu Pha Nang National Protected Area, and to gauge their interest in a new eco-education center that will bring university environmental studies students in to the field to learn about and work directly with local people in community conservation—ranging from organized tree planting events to an incentive-based eco-awards program for young people demonstrating leadership in protecting the environment.

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Here, NWF’s publications (Ranger Rick in particular) and hands-on education materials proved to be useful conversation starters and valued gifts. Activity-based outdoor learning offers an appealing and accessible way to engage youth in diverse settings to learn about and develop appreciation for the value of wildlife and habitat.

Visiting with the leaders of Na Hoy—particularly the strong and influential leaders of the women’s union—I was struck by their genuine hospitality, curiosity at our approach, and matter-of-fact descriptions of changes underway in the forest: elephants are gone; collecting mushrooms requires days’ walking rather than hours; and a nearby mine has diminished their village river’s flow and quality. It wasn’t that they didn’t care about these changes to the environment, but they did not express a strong sense of control over their future. Aor’s organization hopes to catalyze awareness and stewardship through a process beginning with action research.

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In Vietnam, I spent most of my time at Cuc Phuong National Park, the home of Save Vietnam’s Wildlife and three endangered species rescue and rehabilitation centers. As described in a recent issue of National Wildlife, Save Vietnam’s Wildlife works to stop illegal trade of the pangolin—an obscure yet charming scaled mammal that fetches astronomical prices in illegal markets throughout Vietnam, China, and beyond. In addition to receiving confiscated pangolins and preparing them for release into protected habitat (a call came while I was there that fifteen new animals were seized and ready for pick up), Save Vietnam’s Wildlife advocates for tougher laws and stronger enforcement, and conducts education and outreach to youth and to communities that hunt and use pangolin products for food and traditional medicine.

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When Thai was in Montana last fall, he visited the Missoula-based Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, whose educational display tells the story of North American wildlife conservation: from exploitation to awareness, and from mobilized citizens to national organizations advocating for wildlife. Thai wrote a blog about the cognitive dissonance he felt when he saw the banner proclaiming that “Hunting is Conservation,” but he kept an open mind as he spent time in the field with a game warden, sat in on NWF meetings involving sportsmen, and developed an uneasy appreciation for hunters’ role in protecting habitat and species conservation.

So, in Vietnam, Thai urged me to tell the story of North American conservation–with the hunting element fully included—in presentations at the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi and at a workshop for rescue center staff and leadership at Cuc Phuong National Park.

I showed historical photos of 19th century abuses: towering piles of bison skulls; barges loaded with salmon; and stacked rows of deer hanging after slaughter. Next I transitioned to the ethic of conservation that drove new institutions in the 20th century under the leadership of Teddy Roosevelt, Ding Darling, and others, including the 1936 wildlife conservation conference that gave rise to the National Wildlife Federation. When I described how hunters in the U.S. promote wildlife conservation through action and education, my audiences visibly stiffened.

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There is no legal sport hunting in Laos or Vietnam. There is a great deal of market-driven illegal hunting. Forests in both countries are increasingly barren of the charismatic and fascinating species that have lived here and whose modest harvests have sustained local populations for countless generations. A  farmer who chooses to leave a rare turtle where he finds it traversing his rice paddy is making a significant economic sacrifice, with no guarantee that his neighbor won’t pick it up and sell it to a wildlife trader.

Thai—looking ahead at what it will take to engage local people in protecting the critically endangered pangolin—is developing a complex strategy assessment, informed by his time in the U.S., but finely tuned to the particular cultural environment in which he works. In his vision, local people will benefit from wildlife protection rather than exploitation, and will become a constituency for wildlife protection much as hunters did in the United States following decades of market-driven devastation. Recognizing the promise of his approach, Thai is a recipient of the prestigious 2016 Future for Nature conservation award, and will travel this spring to the Netherlands to share his conservation work with an international audience.

As I wrapped up my visit and enjoyed opportunities to tour the rescue centers and several protected areas with active eco-tourism enterprises, I reflected that one of the benefits of sharing one’s professional work with others is confronting the challenge of how to tell your story. Framing our work in the context of the U.S. conservation movement, and bringing it up to date through our efforts to engage the next generation of conservationists through education, reminded me of the privileges we enjoy working with intact landscapes and functioning school and social networks.

At the same time, I gained an appreciation for the persistent and necessarily creative work of young leaders like Aor and Thai, who identify and address conservation issues linked to rural poverty, inadequate government sector support, and external pressures for exploitation. Each has benefitted from working with YSEALI and other professional networks, but they need more resources and support from the international community.

My visit to Southeast Asia was a complex and deeply immersive experience. I was moved by the universal warmth and genuine hospitality I received, awed by cultural icons ranging from ancient (and still active) temples to teeming street markets, stimulated by rich conversations with new friends, and nourished by some of the best meals I have ever enjoyed.

You do not really say goodbye to people on a trip like this. Everyone offers to be your host next time, and expects you to return with family. It is impossible not to look forward to that possibility, and I am grateful for the opportunity to expand my world and to connect on issues that motivate me daily in both my personal and professional life.

As for Teddy Roosevelt and Ranger Rick, I think they traveled well and proved worthy ambassadors—but I’d be interested in reading their blogs.

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