It was around noon. Time to take a short break after lunch.
All of a sudden, an agitated family of three rushed in, the son holding a knife in his hand.
"Give me back my trap," Le Hung yelled and went on to spew choice words of abuse. His mother Truong Thi Vang and his father Le Thanh were not restraining him. They were furious, too.
That scene is still vivid in the mind of Nguyen Van Luong, deputy head of the forest protection unit, as he recalled what happened in November last year at the office of the Bac Hai Van management board.
Bac Hai Van is a protected forest in Thua Thien Hue Province, central Vietnam.
Luong and his colleagues remained calm. They had seen this before. The family had just found out that their animal traps had been seized by the forest rangers.
"If this is your trap, please come in so that we can make a record. If it’s not, please leave," they said.
Their request did not register with Hung and his parents. They were mad. Hung lunged his knife, but Luong was able to intercept the move and snatch the weapon. Hung’s parents joined the scuffle.
The office was having its yard fixed then and there was a lot of rubble there. Once his knife was taken, Hung rushed out, picked a brick and threw it into the office. The first one missed, but the second hit Luong squarely in the face. He was rushed to the Hue Central Hospital, bleeding profusely.
Luong asked everyone not to tell his wife, who had just given birth to their first child less than two months ago." The longer I can hide the bad news, the better for her," he reasoned.
But the very same day that he was attacked, his wife heard the news on the media and saw pictures of her husband and his bleeding face. Sobbing, she called him on the phone. His mother heard and rushed to the hospital, crying.
His face bandaged, Luong could not say much to calm the two women down. As he tried his best to move his mouth and tell his wife not to worry much about his facial wounds, he had no idea that just several days later, he would face more attacks from poachers, that his wife and mother would be reduced to tears again.
A dream start
In 2013, Nguyen Van Luong was a fresh graduate from the Hue University of Agriculture and Forestry. The young man was over the moon as he announced to his parents: "I’ve already got a job."
The Bac Hai Van Forest’s management board had visited the school to recruit young and talented staff for the task of guarding the forest. Luong was chosen to join the specialized forest protection force of Bac Hai Van under a scheme to "attract talents for state agencies."
Luong, the only son in a family of three children, left his home in Huong Tra Town to work around 100 kilometers (62 miles) away.
Today, he is a civil servant with a monthly salary of less than VND4 million ($170) and prone to being assaulted while remaining totally unarmed.
Playing with fire
The Bac Hai Van forest comes into view after traveling about 50 km south of the former imperial city of Hue on National Highway 1 to reach Loc Thuy Commune.
A mountain range running from the Annamite Range to the sea is a natural border separating Da Nang City and Thua Thien Hue Province.
Right at the border, the northern part is Bac (North) Hai Van forest, which is under the management of Thua Thien Hue Province and the southern part, Nam (South) Hai Van forest, comes under Da Nang.
The Nam Hai Van forest has been a familiar topic in the media for well over a decade. Forest fires and deforestation have taken turns to damage the forest and its degradation can be clearly seen in satellite images. Illegal loggers have stolen its trees and the timber has been traded across the country, but the problem is still not solved.
On the other side of the mountain range, Bac Hai Van has luckily been spared the same fate, but maintaining its relative safety takes a lot of effort and sacrifice, particularly from the forest rangers.
Luong still remembers clearly his third day at work when the forest taught him his very first lesson. With zero experience, he stepped on a bumblebee hive. Suffering stings all over his body, Luong was admitted to hospital for emergency treatment. Hospitalized for three days, Luong hid the incident from his family.
But the young man was a quick learner and picked up many tricks to keep himself safe in the wild – except from fellow human beings.
Four months after Hung and his family assaulted him, Luong found his motorbike burned in the middle of the forest.
A report from the Bac Hai Van Forest’s management board submitted to the police reads: On March 18, 2020, a team of rangers, including Luong, were patrolling a forest area in Lang Co Town after they had collected 45 animal traps the previous day. The team spread around to see if they could find more traps and track down the culprits. In one hour, they collected 19 more traps. They failed to catch the trappers, but were able to chase them away. As they returned to the spot where they parked their motorbikes, Luong saw smoke billowing from afar.
"Too much smoke, this must be a forest fire," Luong told his comrade.
They rushed towards the smoke and found that all three motorbikes had been set on fire. As there was nothing they could do to save the bikes, they quickly raked leaves and tree branches to prevent any small fire from spreading and developing into a blaze.
The motorbike, worth VND18 million ($770), was the most valuable asset Luong and his wife had. His monthly salary would not allow him to buy a new one right away.
However, Luong had learnt about the dangers of his job early on.
In 2013, when he’d just joined the team, he saw his colleague, Nguyen Dac Thanh, get stabbed in the face.
A local family were encroaching into the forest to enlarge their farm. Thanh asked them to stop, but they paid no heed. Then he confronted them directly and stopped them as they began clearing the forest trees. In the ensuing scuffle, Thanh was stabbed in the face and suffered a wound just next to his eye.
Tran Quoc Hung, deputy director of Bac Hai Van’s management board, said he’d almost got killed 14 years ago.
He was having a drink at a coffee shop next to the board’s office when a strange man charged in, slashed him and fled. The locals rushed him to the hospital. He needed 15 stitches on his neck and was hospitalized for weeks.
When police finally caught the attacker, he said he had been hired to do it. As investigators dug deeper into the case, they found that several attacks were related to a case in which Hung and other rangers had chased away poachers and prevented them from stealing the wood.
One day in 2016, ranger Pham Van Hung had left his motorbike by the edge of the forest to go on a patrol. When he returned, the two tires of the bike had been slashed. A few months later, when he was driving the bike, he heard a weird sound from the engine. He stopped at a garage for checking it and found someone had put sand in the oil tank. The engine could no longer be used.
A year later, the motorbike of ranger Nguyen Hong Linh was smashed and its rear view mirrors stolen.
Under the verdant canopy of the Bac Hai Van Forest, the fight between rangers and poachers shows no sign of ending.
In most cases, the poachers are locals. The profit they can make from forestry products (including wildlife and timber) without making much investment, is too attractive to give up, especially since the punishment, mostly fines, are too small to act as a deterrent. This is a problem that has been admitted by officials numerous times, but not much has happened to change it.
What this means for rangers of this specialized protection unit is that they have to fight with one arm tied behind their backs.
If it cannot be proved that someone has entered the forest for hunting animals, chopping trees or violating any other forestry law, members of the unit do not have the right to apprehend trespassers lest they face charges of making false arrests. Poachers are smart enough to avoid being photographed or filmed so collecting evidence is not easy.
Furthermore, almost all the essential equipment the rangers use on their job are bought with their own money. The only equipment they are provided for self-defense is a cane. Every year, each ranger gets two uniforms, two sandals and one pith helmet for doing the job of guarding forest resources, preventing and putting out fires if any and chasing away poachers and loggers who do not shy away from violence.
These days, with heat wave after heat wave hitting the central and northern regions, the rangers of Bac Hai Van are busier than usual with activities designed to prevent forest fires and as important, forest fires from spreading by creating flame resistant barriers. This involves burning certain areas that can catch fire easily and once the barrier is large enough, putting out the flames.
This is a difficult and arduous task. "Any carelessness can lead straight to a forest fire and in some particular areas, we have to
carry the water and the extinguishers a long way to put out the fire," Luong said.
Officials from the Thua Thien Hue Forest Protection Deparment once asked rangers in Bac Hai Van if there was a way to reduce tensions and attacks on them.
The deputy director of the forest management board replied: "There is no other way, we have to confront them to keep the forest intact."
But the rangers do not take the assaults personally. When Hung, the man who attacked and injured Luong last year, was sentenced to two years in prison, the ranger did not demand any compensation beyond the hospital bill of VND10 million ($430).
On May 21 this year, prosecutors of Phu Loc District invited Luong over. They wanted to extend the jail term for Hung, saying that two years was not enough for what he had done. But Luong did not agree. He said the sentence was enough and that he hoped Hung would repent.
After graduating from a college in Hue, Vien Anh Thang of Quang Binh Province joined Luong’s team a year ago. The bespectacled young man still has some dyed hair left from his college days. It was not long before Thang got a taste of things to come. His bike was smashed during a patrol. Other people in the team contributed money so their youngest colleague could fix the bike.
Despite all the difficulties, Luong and his colleagues are committed to their job because they know it is important to protect the forest, which is a valuable national resource.
There are times though, that it feels like a thankless job.
When his mother learnt that his motorbike had been burned, she asked Luong: "How come a graduate like you has to do such a hard job?"
Luong had no answer.
By Dac Thanh