A man who tells it to the birds, literally

By Vo Thanh   July 11, 2018 | 10:56 pm PT
Truong Cam, 50, has scripted an amazing poacher to ranger story that will be told in wildlife circles and elsewhere for a long time.

For almost 30 years now, Cam has been working as a ranger at the Bach Ma National Park, a protected area in Thua Thien-Hue Province of central Vietnam.

The path that led Cam, 50, to this job was quite unconventional.

Growing up in a poor family near the park, Cam followed his father into the woods and learned how to catch birds at a very young age. They set up traps to catch birds and sold the birds to earn a living. It was illegal, of course.

In 1985, Cam was caught by rangers as he was trying to sell two common pheasant birds.

Two rangers from the Bach Ma park approached him as buyers, seized the birds and took him to their office.

Cam then told the officers how he could catch birds so easily: he mimicked the sound of the birds and lured them to him.

And at 17, he also knew the park, home to more than 1,400 species of fauna and flora spread out across 37,000 hectares and guarded by a mountain peak standing 1,430 meters above sea level, like the back of his hand.

Truong Cam performs his bird singing skill. Video by Vo Thanh

Three months after his capture, Thua Thien-Hue rangers and a group of people from the World Wildlife Fund paid Cam a visit, asking him to help find if there were any alive crested argus birds in a specific area inside the park. The shy bird is found in submontane primary forests of Vietnam, Laos and Malaysia, where ongoing habitat loss and overhunting have pushed it to "near threatened" status in the international conservation red list.

Cam agreed on the search. He only asked for three pieces of rope and walked into the wood alone. Shortly after, to the surprise of rangers and experts, he walked out with a crested argus in his hands.

That event changed Cam’s life forever.

Impressed by Cam’s kills, Huynh Van Keo, the then director of the park, offered him a job as a ranger.

“It was Keo who has changed my life and helped me become who I am today.”

Bach Ma is home to more than 358 bird species and Cam can mimic the sounds of over 100 of these, using only his mouth or a combination of hands and mouth.

The decades he has worked at the park has deepened his knowledge of both the park and its birds.

He is still learning to imitate the sounds of birds and distinguish the different sounds they use for different purposes, like flirting or communicating with their children.

Truong Cam talks about birds with a French visitor. Photo by VnExpress/Vo Thanh

Truong Cam talks about birds with a French visitor. Photo by VnExpress/Vo Thanh

“Birds are very smart, if they discover that we cannot speak in their language, they’d never return to the source of the sound we make again,” Cam said.

Now, if he walks into a wood and hears no bird sounds, he knows the area has been damaged by humans or suffered some natural disaster.

Cam’s expertise is not confined to bird language. He is also fluent in English and French, and this has made him a popular guide in the park.

The poacher turned ranger is content.

“I have seen many times how rangers save endangered animals. I understand the value of my job and I just love what I am doing more and more every day.”

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