When Vu Thi Quyen graduated from Hanoi National University in 1996, she immediately went to work for Fauna and Flora International (FFI), an English NGO working in Cuc Phuong National Park, Vietnam’s first national park, located about 120 km southwest of Hanoi. At Cuc Phuong, Quyen developed and ran the park’s community-based environmental education program, focused on raising awareness within local communities about the need to protect the park. Having pioneered the program model at Cuc Phuong, Quyen began training environmental educators from National Parks and Nature Reserves throughout Vietnam. In 2000, less than two years before the formal end of the FFI project at Cuc Phuong, Quyen founded ENV, the country’s first nature and environment-focused local non-government organization. Under Quyen’s leadership, ENV evolved to focus on what Quyen considers to be the greatest threat to her country’s wildlife (as well as that of the region): hunting and illegal wildlife trade, driven by an ever-increasing consumer demand. As ENV’s Executive Director, Quyen directly manages the policy and legislation program at ENV. Her husband Douglas Hendrie currently serves as a technical advisor to ENV. They currently split their time between working in Vietnam and the U.S.
Can u tell me more about your organization- ENV in Vietnam? What are its main missions ?
Our organization ENV, works at national awareness of animal conservancy and wildlife protection. We work at the legislative sector as well as hands on relations with the public on wildlife conservancy issues. We started focussing on law enforcement issues and getting the public to work together with us. In 2005 we created a national toll free hotline. It is probably similar to many other initiatives that are done by other countries. Corruption is only part of the major problem. And the public does not trust the authorities to do the right thing. The purpose of creating a hotline was for the public to create a justice mechanism for wildlife protection. This is a link between the public and the authorities. After we get a report from the member of the public we will determine our course of action. Whether it was a life threatening incident for the animals or of a different nature.But we have different procedures to be followed for different tasks involving wildlife protection. We have so far tracked close to 10700 cases of wildlife abuse. These cases are tracked from the start to the conclusion. We saw a number of cases involving Vietnamese marine life and Vietnamese fishermen. These included marine turtle conservation that extended across national boundaries and went into Indonesia, Malaysia and other countries. These were high profiled investigations that involved national and transnational laws and the need to work with enforcement authorities across several regional countries.
What are some of the programs you have rolled out in Hanoi and other parts of Vietnam with regards to educating the public about wildlife conservation ?
We work with the law enforcement bodies but some of the challenges lies in the fact that many of the law enforcement bodies do not understand the law to a particular case. Hence it can be the other way around where they call us and ask for advice about a particular case. We often provide legal advice to law enforcement throughout the country. We have about seven staff in the wildlife crime unit that works with the public every day. Every day we get around 2.6 cases reported to ENV daily. And our staff spend a great deal of their time dealing with authorities around the countries. Setting up sting operations, connecting between traders and informers, setting up fake buys and to coordinate with the officials from the law enforcement unit to make arrests. That would in turn increase the transparency amongst the local authorities. In the past when the authorities confiscate Tigers or any other animals they would sell these animals back to the traders. They would go back to the trade. But they can’t do that anymore. Authorities have started to learn what is considered taboo and what accepted practice is today.
What were some of the early challengers setting up your NGO ?
When I left the university, I worked for a UK based organization. I was a project coordinator for the project. I was in charge of the local community awareness program. In those days in 1996, wildlife conservation was a very difficult task. Because no one believed that education can help change the people’s mind-set. The Park directors only provided vehicles and guns and training to the park rangers. The local community had nothing to do with the park in the early years. We started to have a dialogue with the local community with regards to park conservation. We got a lot of resistance on this idea. However we got some local schools involved and people slowly started speaking highly about their efforts to save the wildlife at the national parks in Vietnam. The local community started to report crimes to our division rather than directly to the rangers.. The park has continued with the education program. It because a successful community education model for others to follow. That was our early success. During that time when I was 25 years old it was very hard to create an NGO in Vietnam. Now it’s relatively easy. The registration process for ENV took us two years from 2000 – 2002. Because in Vietnam you can’t become legal until you start your activity. Now we work with the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Public Security and Public Security. We share our intelligence and our networks with them. We understand the major criminal networks that operate in the country. Because of ENV’s reputation we managed to pull this off by working with informants and criminal networks and how they operate informally. It has been very challenging but we feel that we have also made a great deal of progress especially over the past 10 years.
Do you work closely with the authorities ?
We work with the National Police and Law enforcement bodies in Vietnam. Recently we worked with the National Police to catch one of the biggest trade net traders. A few years ago we identified a trader that traded with tigers and bears including other rare animals. We took almost two years to trace his activities and to put him away for good. We work with various law enforcement authorities in Vietnam on cases by case basis..
Can you share some of your success stories ?
We have around a case where we have pangolin that were considered rare. In Vietnam there are two cases of Pangolin. They are not at the same level as tigers and they were allowed to be commercially traded as long as they get the government permits. In 2013 the government lifted two species of Pangolins to the same level of protection as tigers and bears. However in some parts of the country they still use the old law which is easier for traders. One day we got a phone call from a law enforcement officer from one of the provinces in North Vietnam. They called our hotline to ask how much is a Pangolin being sold in the market. Our staff intercepted the call and later we found out that they had confiscated some Pangolins from traders and now wanted to resell them back to the traders. We used that case to our advantage as we later reached out to all the law enforcement agents and officers to maintain a high level of media awareness of the Pangolin cases. Hence we do not have similar instances of local authorities trying to sell Pangolins back to the traders. Hence this case helped to create a positive mind-set on the sale of Pangolins in Vietnam. More people started to turn over Pangolins to law enforcement agents as now the public seemed to be aware of the need to protect Pangolins. Now we have created a good name for ourselves. Many in the public and the law enforcement groups are aware of ENV now. That is a good thing. They know that we are very persistent and are serious about what we are trying to do.
DO you provide incentives to report on wildlife crime ?
Getting the public to not use wildlife products and to make them aware of the protection of endangered species is starting to pay off. As the public is starting to be involved in reporting wildlife crime. We do not provide any incentives for Vietnamese to report on wildlife crime. We maintain the fact that it is the responsibility of Vietnamese to report these crimes. So no authorities or law enforcement agencies or even the public do not get incentives. Because we feel that if Vietnamese people want to protect wildlife they need to do it from their heart and not because of incentives. We have 17 outposts or volunteer clubs throughout Vietnam. We also have many other independent volunteers to assist us. These volunteers volunteer their time and are usually college students. Each month they would carry out a public awareness campaigns with materials and training and with very limited amount of money.
Has there been a radical mind shift in what the younger generation think about animal conservancy today as compared to the past ?
We get a lot of younger generation people of Vietnam that want to do the right thing. It is so much different compared to 2005. I remember that in 2005, we got 80 Tigers that were caught illegally by poachers. At that time the conservation groups wanted the government to shut down these Tiger farms. However the Tiger farm owners had connections with people in high places including in top government officials. Also at that time the Tiger farm owners lobbied the government for support and the public did not fully understand the picture and supported the Tiger farm owners instead of the conservancy groups. They said that these people actually protect the tigers. However in reality it’s the opposite. Now people of course don’t think that way any longer.
A few years ago we have the case where soldiers were killing langurs (endangered monkeys) that were posted on his Facebook. Langurs are endangered species and in 2014 there are only 300 langurs known to be existent in Vietnam. The public reported to us but since it was seen on Facebook, we did not know who the perpetrator of the crime was. We went to the media asking for the public to help us locate this person. And that case created a public outcry. The Vietnamese were outraged at the extent of cruelty that was showed to the langurs, where pictures was taken of them dead and posing with cigarettes from their nostrils. The central government including the military high command tracked down the soldiers that was responsible for this crime of killing langurs. The soldiers escaped to the central highlands but they were later discovered and arrested. Hence this is an example of how public outcry caused the Vietnamese to react and to have a positive outcome.
What are some of the media messages you have used ?
We have 4 or 5 PSA (public service announcements) and short films that help to report crime to our hotline. This is also referred to as PSI. Each PSI is then shown on national TV. We get at least 60-80 channels that voluntarily air our PSI. We have a network of journalist that regularly send out our messages to the public . At the policy level we work closely with the government. Especially with the law and the legislation when it comes to the protection of endangered species. We have also fought against legislation that has a negative impact on wildlife conservation. For instance we need to guard against opening the door for commercial trade for wildlife species or allow even bear farming in Vietnam. We work closely the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Environment and Forestry, the national police and other government institutions at many different levels.
What are some of the new Laws in protection of Animal Wildlife to be introduced in Vietnam? Will it be effective ?
The new law coming out which we hope will come out very soon is a criminal code – it will increase the prison term from 7 years to 15 years in prison for those caught breaking the law for trading in endangered species.. We have many cases in the past where we were unable to prosecute as it was due to the fact that these cases was treated as a civil crime and not a criminal crime. That is starting to change with the new implementation of the criminal code system. We will be able to prosecute the cases involving including possession . The new law is supposed to come out July 1st in 2016. Hence due to the nature of the criminal code that embraces all aspects of social crime there were technical problems to overcome. That caused a delay. We are hoping that it will come out anytime later this year.
Do you work international and local NGOs ?
We partner with a number of international NGOs like Animal Protection. We have been partnering them for a long time. We work with them on the protection of bear farming in Vietnam. In 2005 we worked with the government to phase out bear farming in Vietnam. In 2005, we had 4300 bears in captivity. Now after 10 years we have less than a thousand bears left in captivity. We have made a lot of progress over the years. We have also had conflicting instructions from the government. Where the government has said in the past that farmers having new bears would not be prosecuted etc. that sent mixed signals to the bear cub farmers. We also partner with other organizations like the Save Rhino International and International Rhino Protection. They support us with the Rhino Campaign in Vietnam. We also work closely with the US Wildlife Service and Australian Wildlife Conservancy that have been supporting us for many years.
To be frank as far as local NGOs are concerned we don’t really have anyone that works with wildlife crime. We have smaller NGOs that work on particular issues like Pangolin awareness and conservation.
Tell us more about your funding initiatives ?
We are both self-funded and rely on support from our worldwide partners as well as private foundations. The US Wildlife Service for instance has been supporting us for many years. Mostly from international partners and foundations.
Making changes fast enough for making an impact on conservation
The biggest question is whether we can make these changes fast enough to save all the wildlife on time and whether our efforts have paid off. We had time to save our animals- tigers and bears that were on the verge of extinction. It was said that there were still only 5 tigers left to save in the wild in Vietnam. Do we have time to save those 5 tigers? Also we still have corruption.. If we know about corruption we would deal with it and its not easy or black and white. However we need to fight against the traditional thinking. We need to work with the right elements in the government to work on saving these wildlife. In order for Vietnam to change we cannot incentivize them or give them money as when the money stops they stop working.We are building the new Vietnam. The new way of thinking.
Do you find a lot of criminal gangs involved in the endangered species business ?
In many cases its quite risky for us especially for our staff where they actually have to infiltrate smuggling groups. For instance we infiltrated a community that trades tigers underground,some of the staff had heard that those involved were threatened with losing their lives. In these cases there was a need to get them out of the groups they have infiltrated. We don’t have the legal power but we work closely with the law enforcement groups. We know our role as well and protect the identity of our sources. We have set up a sting operations in the past. But we always work with the local police who act as “buyers”. That gives us an element of protection as well. We ensure that we share such Intel with the local authorities.
What is your current role in ENV ?
I am reducing my role in day to day operations in Vietnam. My partner in Vietnam is in charge of policy planning issues and legislation. My husband Douglas Hendrie is dealing with law enforcement, legislation and other work in Vietnam. He is the technical advisor of the group. He is playing an active role in the organization and is in charge of training. And looking at the strategy of the organization and the investigations in a day to day basis. I don’t travel as much as my husband. I am now more focussed on training the next generation of leaders and manging ENV and looking at the long term sustainability of the organization.
What we are trying to avoid is to become too big that we just focus on raising money and forget what we are there for in the first place. That has happened with so many big NGOs. That they spend so much time and effort to keep the organization going. And they forget about their primary mission of why they created their organization in the beginning. ENV we work very hard not to become part of the problem. We get things done on the ground. So many things are happening on the ground. If we focus on these issues that would be sufficient?
What do you mean by being prepared to lose your sleep over your cause – is that the gauge of a good conservationist and being known as a doer rather than a poser as you mentioned ?
We realise it is dangerous. However if nobody is taking a risk we realize that we need to make an impact to wildlife conservation. I often tell our staff that is ENV becomes such a large organization and it does not make an impact on wildlife conservation I would definitely shut it down. There is no need for another useless organization to exist and pretend to do its work. That is not what ENV is about. There are doers and posers. We prefer to be known as doers rather than posers. We want to make an impact on the ground and we need to take a certain amount of risk. So if you are prepared to do wildlife conservation you must be prepared to lose your sleep. That is the gauge of a good conservationist.