Standing on top of a four-wheel drive looking out into a central Kenyan wildlife reserve wearing a bucket head hat – and walking boots, Trang Nguyen stands apart from most Vietnamese who prefer European charm and East Asian wonders for their holidays and photographic memories.
But Trang is no ordinary traveller.
The 31-year-old founder and executive director of WildAct, a Vietnamese conservation NGO, travels the world as a wildlife conservation scientist.
In a fast-growing economy where most people eye lucrative jobs in business and finance and the government regards civil society with scepticism, if not hostility, she stands out.
‘’My parents weren’t too supportive when I told them what I wanted to do,’’ Trang told Al Jazeera, acknowledging that few Vietnamese would see what she does as a dream job.
But there is little else she can imagine herself doing.
‘’I enjoy doing research and so I [have] spent much of my time in the field, in remote areas and sometimes also putting myself in dangerous situations. No parents would want their child to go through that,’’ she said.
Vietnam, which has emerged as a hotspot in the multibillion-dollar global trade in illegal wildlife, serves as both a transit route and a major consumer market. Vietnamese crime syndicates have been documented operating as poachers and smugglers in a host of source countries throughout Africa and Asia, from Malaysia to Mozambique, according to the UK-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).
The EIA says that in the 17 years until 2019, Vietnam was involved in more than 600 seizures linked to illegal trade, involving the deaths of at least 228 tigers, 610 rhinoceroses, 15,779 elephants, and 65,510 pangolins – all species that are in critical danger. The group based its figures on publicly available data on seizures.
In terms of the consumption of tiger parts and products, Vietnamese are second only to the Chinese.
Many people believe that what they call “bone glue”, or cao in Vietnamese, which comes from animals like tigers and monkeys, can help treat joint-related ailments. Rhino horns, meanwhile, are a symbol of affluence with some believing the horn can cure cancer.
Trang herself is a colon cancer survivor, and was struck by a comment from her doctor that such beliefs were dangerous given the need for early treatment with many cancers.
It was a “powerful message”, she told the World Wildlife Fund in an interview this year, and an effective way for her to tackle the continuing demand for rhino horn.