At least poachers are people of the forest

Vietnam Heritage, February 2011 -- In an interview with reporter Nhu Thuan, anti-poaching expert Le Hoai Phuong said: ‘From years of work at the bureau of the People’s Prosecutor of Binh Thuan Province, meeting many poachers, I’ve realized that we cannot use administrative measures against forest destruction. If you want people to protect forests, you have to educate them to love nature and help them attach their lives to forests. If nobody does this, I will be the first and I will do it with my own resources.           
          ‘I can let my staff stay at home for months, but if they’re at work, they have to work day and night. How we work depends on nature. A mammal giving birth, a bird incubating eggs – we can’t leave them there and come back the following day. Filming a flood scene cannot wait for the flood to be over. There is no need for either much money or modern equipment. The main thing is the method. Leave early and return late, understand the animal. For instance, to take a bird picture, the only way is to learn the bird’s voice by heart, play with it and be its friend.’

Nhu Thuan: ‘Your documentary film Tội Ác Rừng Xanh (Forest Crime), about monkey-hunters, has touched people’s hearts on the point of human crime against nature. Can you comment?
          Phuong: ‘The film is a result of three years as an individual observer accompanying hunters in Binh Thuan. I took photographs and filmed. I had to live, like a family-member, with the hunters for months in order to convince them to let me do this.
          ‘Seeing deforestation was advancing, I felt useless. I asked the hunters why they went hunting. The answer was “Because it is a living. There is no choice”. Asked “If you were asked to protect forests, would you agree?” they said, “Sure, because if you keep hunting, one day there will be no more animals for you to hunt.” In my years of working at the Prosecutor’s, I’ve worked on hundreds of deforestation cases, but forests still continue to disappear. We have to give forests to people to protect.’

         Nhu Thuan: ‘Your cinema company Thien Nhien Viet Nam (Vietnam’s Nature) is planning a project about saving the environment. Can you talk about the project?’
         Phuong: ‘We’re planning to make a project of building a nature reserve for Vietnam’s wild animals and as a nature-film studio. There, we will adopt animals, use them for film-making, conserve them and serve the needs of scientific study, environmental education . . . But there are legal problems and problems to do with people’s awareness.’

          Le Hoai Phuong was born in 1961 and graduated from the Law University in 1986. He worked at the office of People’s Prosecutor of Binh Thuan Province from 1999 to 2008. In 2009, he established a cinema company, Thien Nhien Viet Nam (Vietnam’s Nature), in Phan Thiet, Binh Thuan Province. He has won several awards for photography and documentary films and three gold trophies for conserving Vietnam’s environment, the latter awarded by the Vietnam Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. Tội Ác Rừng Xanh won first prize at the National Environment Film Festival in 2010.

          Nhu Thuan: ‘Could we call you a professional environmental activist?’
          Phuong: ‘Over 12 years of photography (including nine years working with the People’s Prosecutor of Binh Thuan Province), I have been taking only environmental pictures. I take them not for competitions or as my hobby. It is all about what I have in my heart about the forests. My photos describe details of animal lives. They note both the multiplication and destruction going on day by day. I have thousands rolls of documentary film.’
          Additionally, Le Hoai Phuong told Vietnam Heritage: ‘When Tội Ác Rừng Xanh was finished, I gave it to some of my friends and relatives for a preview. A lot of viewers condemned the hunters and called for punishment. I have a different opinion. With ten years of experience in wandering around forests taking wild-animal pictures, I know hunters are just poor farmers.
         ‘To hunt wild animals, they have to huddle in forests and some may catch malaria and other illnesses. Many told me that, to earn a living, they had to do that job that they themselves thought very cruel. In fact, they only make wild-animal-traders richer, while they remain poor.

         ‘Many of them [hunters] have been caught. But don’t think that is an effective solution. Catch one hunter and another will appear. Why don’t we use wild-animal-hunters as protectors? Why don’t we train them, bring knowledge to them and offer them a job protecting animals? If we pay them for protecting the forest, I think they will be the best forest-protectors. They know all the ways and shortcuts in forests. So they cannot be bypassed by hunters. I’ve written a letter to a foreign organization, asking for support for a project for turning forest-destroyers into forest-protectors. There has been no reply.’
         On the methods of trapping monkeys, Phuong said: ‘Monkey-hunters first look for signs like marks where trees have been climbed on, faeces on the ground or trails. Once they find signs, in one method they hang cobs of corn. They may need hundreds of kilograms over several months to get monkeys used to the lure. The area in which the corn is hung is enclosed with a two-metre-high net and the hunters create a bridge over it at one point.
         ‘After the chief monkey has finished eating, it may climb the highest tree in the area, commanding other monkeys to come. The hunters, hiding nearby, wait till a good number of monkeys are in the trap and then cut a string, collapsing the bridge. A somewhat different method catches a single monkey, usually a chief.
         ‘The hunters may wait in a hide they have made and watch through a small hole. They may have to get up at 4 a.m. and be prepared not to leave the hide or make a sound for the whole day. Monkeys are not easy to catch. The troop has a leader who observes and raises alarms. The whole troop may sit in silence for hours to watch. Sometimes only the chief monkey enters the trap. If the trap is not sprung but the leader feels unsafe, it may lead the troop deep into the forest for many days.

         ‘The monkeys traders order most are babies under two kilograms and females caring for young. The babies and females are caught first. The males then seek revenge, biting dangerously. So, to protect themselves, the hunters destroy the monkeys’ teeth.’

By Le Hoai Phuong