“I wouldn’t have to sleep with a knife to be safe”

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She was only seven or eight years old when she told her parents that she wanted to be a conservationist. Trang Nguyen (Vietnam, 1990) barely raised an inch from the ground when he began the adventure that would be his life and that would lead him to win the Princess of Girona International Foundation Award this 2022.

The award, she says, is not just for her, but “for all of us who work in nature conservation,” a discipline she fell in love with in the late 1990s. At that time, she says, in Vietnam people did not know what conservation was. That’s why, he admits, when he told his parents that when he grew up he wanted to work “conserving and protecting wild animals”, they thought he wanted to work in a zoo.

Account Nguyen from the offices of his NGO, WildActin Hanoi, which was not what he wanted to be when he grew up: “I wanted to investigate the habitats of animals, take care of them in the forests, protect them…”.

Nguyen with a local guide, a ranger and a volunteer.

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Question: How does a 7-year-old girl come to that conclusion?

Response: In the 1990s, the Vietnamese government did not really restrict or control wildlife consumption and trade as it does now. If you went out on the street, you saw people selling monkeys, bear cubs and all kinds of wild animals. I always felt terrible seeing them. Almost like he empathized with them. He wanted to help them escape.

P.: But there was a trigger, a decisive moment.

A.: One day coming back from school I saw in a house that there were caged bears. Although at that time I was not aware of what was happening, in Vietnam there was a large market related to the sale and purchase of bear bile. The animals were crowded together, unable to move, and a person was pricking them with a needle and extracting bile from them, an extremely painful process. I accidentally saw it and it stuck with me.

Nguyen is clear. It was at that precise moment that he knew what he wanted to do with his life: help those bears and any other animal that was in danger. The Vietnamese woman admits that at that time she was “hooked” on BBC Planet Earth and documentaries by scientist and conservationist David Attenborough. “He also inspired me,” she acknowledges.

Trang Nguyen with David Attenborough.

Trang Nguyen with David Attenborough.

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Back in the 1990s, Nguyen says, many people had “this misconception that conservation is an activity reserved for rich white people from the West, and that someone local, from here, a Vietnamese, cannot go to the forest to protect life. wild”. At that moment, he recognizes, “for many it was something that only foreigners did”.

Q.: Is it still like that? In Vietnam is it still something that others are dedicated to?

A.: Now I get tons of emails from parents asking me what their sons and daughters have to do to become conservationists, because that’s what they want. I tell them that they can take a course, I encourage them to study. I also get messages from young people who want to volunteer with WildAct. What’s more, right now we have very young people working with us. Even some of the volunteers are in high school. That shows that there is a lot of interest in environmentalism and conservation.

Nguyen admits that, in addition, in the last two and a half years, with the maelstrom of covid-19, there are many more people aware that “illegal wildlife trade and consumption causes zoonotic diseases that jump from animals to humans.” And he celebrates that the Government of his country, “finally” has begun to “act more than ever to eliminate illegal trade” of this type.

A day at WildAct

The young Vietnamese recognizes that the day to day in her non-profit organization, which monitors illegal wildlife trade and trafficking all over the world, it is “very boring”. However, the programs that WildAct runs appear to be just the opposite.

One of its main projects, for example, focuses on innovation in education. Because, says Nguyen, “in Vietnam there is no course in the university where you can study nature”. And he confesses that “if you want to be a conservationist by profession, you have to study abroad, and not everyone can afford to do so.”

Trang Nguyen setting up a camera trap.

Trang Nguyen setting up a camera trap.

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So WildAct contacted the Vietnamese Minister of Education and created a course that the administration “wasn’t betting on.” Nevertheless, in 3 months it had more than 120 students; More than half of the graduates immediately found jobs in the field of conservation, either with NGOs or international agencies. “Many of them work in national parks or protected reserves,” she says.

But education does not only pass through studies. That’s why WildAct also has a program to empower women conservationists. Because “this field is an eminently masculinized sector, and gender violence and sexual harassment is the order of the day“, sentences Nguyen.

sexual violence

To make the situation of their colleagues visible –and their own–, the oengé carried out a survey on sexual harassment in Vietnam in 2020. Of the 140 respondents, 5 out of 6 admitted to having been harassed while they carried out their work.

The insecurity to which we women who work in conservation are exposed is very highespecially if we want to do field work”, she assures. And she adds: “Imagine that in the expedition group you are the only woman among 14 or 15 men”. For this reason, from their organization they collaborate with others that work on gender equality (SDG 5) to try to challenge this problem and encourage agencies and NGOs that protect nature to have their own equality policies.

Q.: What is the most complicated situation you have faced?

A.: There are so many that it is difficult to choose just one. A few years ago she was on an expedition in the forest and was the only woman in the group. We were setting up a camera trap so we could take pictures of the animals in their natural state. It is a very demanding job: you walk through the forest, there is no electricity, no water, nothing. You walk with your things in your backpack and when night comes you place a hammock between the trees and sleep outdoors. During the day you spend hours walking, going up and down mountains, you have to cross rivers and streams.

Trang Nguyen on a night expedition in Madagascar.


Trang Nguyen en una expedición nocturna en Madagascar.

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“Es un trabajo agotador”, reconoce. Sin embargo, es por la noche, en el momento en el que paran a descansar, cuando “realmente empiezan los problemas”. Nguyen admite que “muchos de los hombres con los que estás de expedición no son precisamente amables, y en demasiadas ocasiones incitan verbalmente al acoso sexual“.

“Te dicen cosas que no son para nada aceptables”, asegura. Y cuenta que en una de las expediciones la situación se volvió insostenible.

P.: ¿Qué ocurrió?

R.: Yo estaba durmiendo y sentí que alguien me tocaba la pierna, estaba acariciándomela desde el pie hasta los muslos. Cuando me di cuenta, me desperté y me puse a gritar. Pero lo peor de todo es que me espetó: ‘¿Por qué estás montando tanto escándalo? Sólo estoy masajeándote las piernas’.

Le tuve que decir que me dejase en paz y que parase, pero el resto de la expedición, que se había despertado con mis gritos, simplemente miraba y nadie hacía nada, como si lo que estuviese pasando fuese normal. Aunque el hombre acabó volviendo a su hamaca, a nadie le importó lo que hizo, nadie ayudó, simplemente lo ignoraron. Y eso puede ser muy estresante, especialmente en una situación que ya de base es muy exigente. Es que no necesitas, encima de todo, tener una preocupación así; no deberías tener que dormir con un cuchillo para estar segura.

Trang Nguyen en una expedición en Camboya.


Trang Nguyen en una expedición en Camboya.

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Este no es el único ejemplo de discrimación o acoso del que habla Nguyen. Algo que, reconoce, recibe más por ser mujer que por ser ecologista. Y explica que cuando va a cualquier a un parque nacional o a impartir cualquier curso o taller con su personal, los responsables del lugar siempre hablan y se dirigen al hombre que está a su lado.

Y eso, afirma, “a pesar de que soy yo la que les está explicando las cosas”. Hay personas “que simplemente no me hablan o no me escuchan porque soy una mujer“.

P.: También realiza trabajo de campo, infiltrándose en el mercado negro.

R.: En ocasiones me infiltro en organizaciones de comercio ilegal de especies, sobre todo en África. Es un trabajo muy peligroso para un hombre, pero aún más para una mujer. Cuando estás inflitrada tienes que actuar, estás interpretando un papel: estás interesada en comprar productos a unos criminales y ellos son muy majos contigo, porque quieren que la venta salga bien.

Pero cuando eres una mujer tienen una percepción muy estereotipada de las mujeres asiáticas, que está influenciada por las películas occidentales, de que somos sumisas, que hacemos lo que se nos pida. Así que tu llegas ahí y siempre tienen esa idea en la cabeza; y aunque vayas como compradora o como colega, te ven como un objeto sexual.

A veces, especialmente los jefazos, esperan que coquetees con ellos o incluso que les hagas favores sexuales. Obviamente, no lo vas a hacer, pero en muchas ocasiones puede llegar a ser muy peligroso y complicado zafarse de esas situaciones.

Nguyen en el bosque.


Nguyen en el bosque.

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P.: ¿Merece la pena pasar por estas situaciones y arriesgar así la vida?

R.: La mayoría de los conservacionistas hacemos lo que hacemos porque amamos nuestro trabajo y es nuestra pasión. Intentamos salvar a las especies de la extinción porque tenemos esperanza y por que, al igual que nosotros, hay gente que intenta cambiar las cosas. Por eso, cuando se nos acerca gente joven y nos dice que quieren ser conservacionistas, nos da esperanza.

P.: ¿La pandemia de covid-19 ha cambiado la situación?

R.: Los gobiernos de Vietnam, por ejemplo, y de China, que antes pasaban por alto el comercio ilegal de especies, ahora empiezan a entender y a ver lo que ocurre con el tráfico ilegal y cómo afecta a los humanos y, sobre todo, a lo que más les importa: el dinero.

Al permitir durante años el comercio de animales y plantas, que es la cuarta actividad ilegal más rentable, llegó la covid y tuvimos que confinarnos. Eso provocó grandes crisis económicas. Además, países como el mío o Kenia o Sudáfrica han perdido mucho dinero procedente del turismo. Por lo que, por primera vez, los gobiernos se han dado cuenta de la situación. En Vietnam, por ejemplo, por primera vez el Gobierno clausuró uno de los mercados ilegales.

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