Nguyễn Văn Thái wins Goldman Environmental Prize for saving pangolins

Pangolins are the world’s most illegally traded mammal – one is captured by poachers every five minutes, according to the IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group. But one man is working to reverse the wrong done to the shy woodland creature.

This week, Vietnamese conservationist Nguyễn Văn Thái was awarded the acclaimed Goldman Environmental Prize for his pangolin protection efforts. We bring you eight facts about him, and the story about how he came to become a pangolin hero.

1. He grew up close to nature

Nguyễn Văn Thái pangolin national park
Image credit: iphegenia1

Thái grew up in Ninh Bình Province next to Cúc Phương National Park, Vietnam’s oldest national park, according to Sierra Club.

Its lush forests are home to some of Asia’s rarest animals and plants, including the Clouded Leopard, Asian Black Bear and – of course – the pangolin.

2. It was his childhood dream to protect wildlife

Nguyễn Văn Thái pangolin save vietnam's wildlife kindergarten education
Save Vietnam’s Wildlife visits a kindergarten for its Valuing Nature in Childhood Program
Image credit: Save Vietnam’s Wildlife

Thái’s dedication to preserving wildlife has its roots in his childhood. Having witnessed poachers killing a mother pangolin and her baby when he was just eight years old, he knew from an early age that he wanted to save pangolins when he grew up, as wildlife photographer and his close colleague Suzi Eszterhas told Sierra Club.

He went on to pursue a Masters in Environmental Science at the Australian National University to fulfil his dream. He also holds a Graduate Certificate in Wildlife Management from the University of Kent and the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, according to Save Vietnam’s Wildlife.

3. His team has rescued almost 1,600 pangolins

Nguyễn Văn Thái pangolin rangers
Image credit: 
Save Vietnam’s Wildlife

Thái started his own nonprofit organisation, Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, in 2014. It seeks to rescue and rehabilitate endangered animals, while raising public awareness. Headquartered in the Cúc Phương National Park, it has more than 60 staff and volunteers on the team.

Save Vietnam’s Wildlife has saved 1,540 pangolins as of 2020, as reported on Goldman Environmental Prize. A ChannelNewsAsia report states that it is also trying to breed Chinese pangolins, which face a higher risk of extinction.

4. He helped to put in place a global ban on pangolin trade

Nguyễn Văn Thái pangolin baby save vietnam's wildlife
Image credit: Save Vietnam’s Wildlife

Thái’s push for pangolin protection goes beyond Vietnam’s forests. In 2015, he spoke at the Wildlife Conservation Network Expo in San Francisco to raise awareness about the species’ plight.

His support helped put in place a total trade ban on pangolins in 2016, which was initiated by the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species. All 182 member countries agreed to completely ban the international trade of pangolins, according to The Guardian.

5. He worked with the government to improve wildlife policies

Thái’s group is behind a number of wildlife policy changes in Vietnam. The government now imposes heavier punishments for possessing snares or hunting dogs in no-hunt zones, Dân Việt reported.

It has also raised protection levels for three endangered species, including the pangolin. The group also convinced the government to change health insurance laws to exclude the cost of pangolin scales in 2014, wrote Sierra Club.

6. He trains government rangers with drones

Nguyễn Văn Thái pangolin poacher camp destroy
Rangers destroying a poacher camp
Image credit: 
Save Vietnam’s Wildlife

Besides rescuing pangolins, Thái has set up an anti-poaching unit to train government rangers to protect wildlife and strengthen law enforcement. He teaches them how to identify different animals, navigate with GPS, and even use drones, according to CNN.

These rangers comb through wide expanses of forests to weed out poacher camps. Their work has reduced illegal activities by 80 per cent, according to Goldman Environmental Prize.

7. He is the second Vietnamese to win the Goldman Prize

Nguyễn Văn Thái pangolin Ngụy Thị Khanh
Ngụy Thị Khanh, the first Vietnamese winner of the prize
Image credit: Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Southeast Asia

Thái isn’t the first Vietnamese recipient of this prestigious prize. In 2018, Ngụy Thị Khanh received the award for her research and push for cleaner forms of energy.

She is the executive director of Green Innovation and Development Centre, a non-governmental organization based in Hanoi, and has worked with government agencies to steer Vietnam away from coal power.

8. He plans to use his prize money to expand his nonprofit

Thai Van Nguyen’s Acceptance Speech, 2021 Goldman Environmental Prize
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Thai Van Nguyen’s Acceptance Speech, 2021 Goldman Environmental Prize

Video credit: Goldman Environmental Prize

In his acceptance speech, Thái shared that he plans to use his prize money from the award to expand the capacity of Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, so it will become one of the “strongest and biggest NGOs working in wildlife conservation”. We stan this man’s passion!

Facts about Nguyễn Văn Thái

Pangolins are highly sought after for their flesh, which some people falsely believe to be a cure-all. For years, poachers have stormed forests in Asia, snatching pangolins from their burrows and cruelly selling them on the black market.

Nguyễn Văn Thái has made it his life’s mission to turn this around, working to protect the shy, harmless animals with rehabilitation, training, education and advocacy.

We hope that more people will come to know of the threats facing Vietnam’s wildlife, and get involved to restore balance to its forests.

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Cover image adapted from: Save Vietnam’s Wildlife and Save Vietnam’s Wildlife

This article was produced in collaboration with National Youth Council Singapore‘s Asia-Ready Exposure Programme. 

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