We Talked to Vietnam’s ‘Pangolin Protector’ About the World’s Most Trafficked Animal

Thai Van Nguyen’s non-profit has saved over 1,500 pangolins.
June 21, 2021, 11:04am
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Thai Van Nguyen, founder of Save Vietnam's Wildlife, interacts with a pangolin. Photo courtesy of Save Vietnam's Wildlife

As an eight-year-old growing up in rural Vietnam, Thai Van Nguyen saw something he would never forget: poachers separating a baby pangolin from its mother.

“In front of me, I saw the hunters catch and cut open some pangolins in our village,” Nguyen told VICE World News. “It was really sad when I saw one baby pangolin with the mom. The mom put the baby on its belly and curled into a ball. But it could not protect itself and the baby from the poachers.”

The harrowing experience set him on course to become the Southeast Asian country’s pangolin protector, working to end the trade in the world’s most trafficked animal that is a mainstay of the multibillion dollar illegal wildlife business. As recognition for his efforts he won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, often called the “Green Nobel,” this month.

“The award is not only for myself but it is also for other conservationists in Vietnam,” Nguyen, 39, said. “This will hopefully inspire other people to work with us in saving the wildlife of our country.”

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Thai Van Nguyen leads the release of rescued pangolins back into the wild. Photo courtesy of Save Vietnam's Wildlife​

The Goldman Environmental Prize is awarded annually to a grassroots activist or steward of the environment from each of the six continental regions. This year, Nguyen was selected for Asia, while Kimiko Hirata, whose grassroots campaign led to the cancellation of 13 coal-powered plants in Japan, was the winner for the Islands and Island Nations.

“This will hopefully inspire other people to work with us in saving the wildlife of our country.”

Deeply shy and nocturnal mammals, pangolins are hunted primarily for their scales, which are used for medicinal purposes despite no evidence of health benefits. Its meat is also sometimes sold as an exotic and pricey delicacy.

Vietnam is a particular hub for the trade, which spans continents. Between 2016 to 2019, 75,000 kilograms of pangolin scales were seized in Vietnam, according to a World Justice Commission report, the second largest volume of seized pangolin scales for a specific country.

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Thai Van Nguyen poses with the Goldman Environmental Prize trophy. Photo courtesy of Save Vietnam's Wildlife

At the start of the pandemic, pangolins, which scientists said were susceptible to coronaviruses, grabbed international attention as a possible intermediary host for the transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. But a recent study found that no pangolins were on sale at the markets in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the virus was first detected. Other potential intermediary hosts including civets and minks were found to be sold alive in those markets. The origins of the virus are still unknown.

Nguyen founded nonprofit Save Vietnam’s Wildlife (SVW) in 2014 to stop illegal poaching, conservation education and preservation of natural habitats. In 2018, he launched Vietnam’s first anti-poaching team which is credited with destroying almost 10,000 animal traps, dismantling 775 illegal camps and arresting 558 people for poaching. SVW has saved an estimated 1,540 pangolins from the illegal wildlife trade. 

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Aside from rescuing and nursing pangolins back to health, Nguyen’s center is also developing a breeding program which could help rebuild the decimated population, which has fallen by 80 to 90 percent in the last 30 years, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society. There are eight known species of pangolin and two Asian species are listed as IUCN critically endangered species

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Thai Van Nguyen's nonprofit organization is credited with saving over 1,500 pangolins. Photo courtesy of Save Vietnam's Wildlife

“As one of the few people in the world working on pangolin conservation and rehabilitation, Nguyen is filling a crucial space for understanding and protecting this critically endangered animal,” the prize announcement said, explaining why he deserves the award and the $200,000 cash prize. 

Nguyen, the second Vietnamese to receive the honor, said that securing funding for nonprofits in Vietnam is challenging, especially when the pandemic hit and donors opted to support the COVID-19 response.

But the prize, he said, will be a big boost for conservation efforts and the money will go towards making programs sustainable in the long term.

“Saving the wildlife, saving the nature, saving the forest is not a work of one person or organization. It needs action from all of earth together.”

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