Once notorious hunter turns langur conservationist

By Tat Dinh   January 4, 2021 | 05:02 pm PT
Once notorious hunter turns langur conservationist
Le Van Hien observes a troop of Delacour's langurs in Ha Nam Province, northern Vietnam, December 21, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Tat Dinh.
Le Van Hien, 60, has laid down his gun to join efforts in protecting critically endangered Delacour's langurs inside a northern Vietnam forest, his former stomping ground.

At 5 a.m. one day in late 2020, Hien, leader of a community conservation team in Kim Bang forest of northern Ha Nam Province, around 60 kilometers south of downtown Hanoi, prepared to embark on a five-day jungle patrol.

In his faded backpack were clothes, rice, noodles and a super-zoom digital camera. At his waist hung a luminescent knife.

Kim Bang forest is home to 13 troops of Delacour's langurs, scientifically named trachypithecus delacouri with its 105 individuals identified as some of the world's 25 most endangered primates. Surrounded by limestone mountains, the forest hosts the world’s second largest langur population, only after Van Long Nature Reserve in neighboring Ninh Binh Province, according to non-profit Fauna & Flora International (FFI) Vietnam.

The six-member community conservation team led by Hien was established four years ago thanks to FFI sponsorship. Its main priority is to monitor forest destruction and the Delacour's langur population.

But few people know Hien used to be a former notorious hunter.

In his home are large photos depicting Delacour's langurs, along with a rotten black chamois head, installed over 30 years ago.

"I was about to bury it, but couldn't deny the fact I used to be a poacher," Hien said in a low voice while dragging on his pipe.

Growing up on the edge of Kim Bang forest, at the age of 13, Hien followed his parents to pick bamboo shoots and fell trees for coal, the green jungle still awash with tigers ready to elope with the odd village cow or goat.

Affected by the raging Vietnam War, most children in the vicinity turned to poaching after finishing primary school in the 1970s.

Hien started off by accompanying his experienced neighbor into the forest, helping snare 10 brush-tailed porcupines on his first trip.

At 17, his first pistol in hand, Hien became the scourge of local wildlife.

For nearly 20 years, he returned home each night carrying bloodied chamois, muntjacs, civets, brush-tailed porcupines, pangolins, monkeys and langurs.

At the time, a chamois equaled 500 kg of rice and a monkey or langur, ten tons.

A new chapter

In early 1994, Hien agreed to guide expert Le Van Dung across dangerous terrain to investigate the Delacour's langur population inside Kim Bang forest. For the first time in many years, he entered the jungle without a gun.

During their week-long mission, Hien had the chance to observe two orange-yellow langurs cling to their mother as the adult male taught them how to forage for food.

"You see, they (langurs) bear the same love as humans. If one baby in the family dies, the others would grieve and stop eating. If the mother langur dies, its baby will also die," Dung explained to a transfixed Hien.

Dung advised him to let go of his gun and forsake hunting.

Back home, staring at his own two young children, Hien was persistently haunted by the young langur's round eyes.

"Maybe I should give up hunting," he told his wife, who immediately backed his decision.

Hien eventually turned to work in the paddy fields, raising pigs and crushing stones to make ends meet, experiencing three harsh, but ultimately rewarding years.

"My heart grew less heavy, though the past still haunted me," he noted.

In late 2016, FFI, the non-profit that first discovered the Kim Bang forest langur population, decided to launch a conservation program to save these primates. Without hesitation, Hien registered to join the team, responsible for removing animal traps and tracking the langurs, along with other animals, in cooperation with local rangers.

Hien learned to use camera and GPS equipment, and how to demarcate the forest to track the langurs.

Conservation mission

Departing in the early morning, Hien's team crossed two mountains to reach Dua Valley by afternoon. Scaling the tallest tree, his keen eyes soon spotted a troop of 12 langurs around 100 meters from a limestone quarry and cement factory, one of dozens in the region feeding Vietnam's rapid industrialization.

Hien climbs over a mountain during his patrol trip at Kim Bang forest in Ha Nam Province, December 21 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Tat Dinh.

Le Van Hien climbs over a mountain during his patrol trip at Kim Bang forest in Ha Nam Province, northern Vietnam, December 21 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Tat Dinh.

His careful record of langur behavior includes tens of thousands of photos and videos, indispensable to expert conservationists.

Langurs are typically territorial, with rival males capable of fighting to the death over a certain patch. With their habitat infringed on by quarrying, Hien has marked an increase in bloody clashes.

Over the past three years, the team has received several threatening messages from poachers affected by their ongoing patrols and collaboration with forest rangers.

Supported with a modest VND3 million ($129) a month, and with mounting death threats, four team members have since resigned.

"For me, this is an opportunity to repay part of my debt to the forest. I will continue as long as I remain healthy," said Hien, who periodically reports his location to his wife while on patrol.

Langurs at risk of disappearance

According to FFI, Delacour's langurs are in danger of disappearing due to the impact of limestone mining around Kim Bang forest.

"Quarrying pollutes the air, destroys the vegetation and the only primary forest of Ha Nam - home to the Delacour's langurs. If this activity continues, in the future, this primate would disappear," said project coordinator Le Dac Phuc, adding four out of 13 troops have been directly affected by limestone mining.

According to a report by the Ha Nam's Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, there are currently 24 mining companies active in Lien Son and Thanh Son communes.

Ngo Manh Ngoc, deputy director of the department, said in 2017, it had submitted a proposal to establish a habitat conservation area in Kim Bang forest, with priority given to Delacour's langurs, but with little result.

Last year, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc asked provincial authorities to protect this primate and review the environmental impact of stone mining on their natural habitat.

FFI is working closely with government agencies and other local partners to halt cement mining that poses a clear and present danger to the karst limestone habitat on which the species depends for survival.

It is estimated there are about 250 Delacour's langurs still found in nature, mostly in forest areas in Kim Bang District of Ha Nam and Van Long Wetland in nearby Ninh Binh Province.

The Delacour’s langur is a primate indigenous to Vietnam, first discovered by and named after Jean Théodore Delacour in 1930.

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