Dr Trang Nguyen

Trang is a wildlife conservation scientist and environmental activist from Vietnam working in both Asia and Africa to tackle the illegal wildlife trade. She is the founder of the NGO WildAct with a vision to conserve threatened species and ecosystems in Vietnam by inspiring, motivating and empowering individuals and society to engage in science-based conservation practices. Her work to date has supported the arrest of more than a dozen illegal wildlife traders and the seizure of over three tons of wildlife parts and was even featured in the 2023 BBC documentary series Planet Earth III.

Trang’s career journey started with a simple love for nature and was ignited by watching Sir David Attenborough's documentaries in her younger years. Feeling disappointed with the lack of wildlife conservation education programmes in Vietnam, Trang started to look to other countries to pursue her desire to learn and to make a difference to the world around her.

“I only wanted to be a wildlife conservationist,” says Trang. And so, she attended various education fairs, hoping to find the right fit, when a discussion with a professor from LJMU, Anthony Whalley, became the catalyst for her to consider a move to the UK for university study. They spoke about the wildlife conservation course at LJMU, with Trang returning every day that the fair was on to find out more and to show her interest and motivation in studying the programme. Professor Whalley said that in all the years he had been to Vietnam, no one had ever asked him about wildlife conservation, she was the first.

Trang came to LJMU as an international student, completing her bachelor’s degree in 2011. Since then, she has completed further study, gaining an MSc in Primate Conservation at Oxford Brookes and an MPhil in Conservation Leadership at the University of Cambridge, as well as completing her PhD at the University of Kent.

Trang says that her time at Cambridge was pivotal in shaping her approach to conservation. “I feel very lucky. I met so many people from different organisations working on conservation. I realised that a paper or publication does not have much of an impact on conservation on the ground, so while I loved research, I wanted to get practical experience too, and that is why I did undercover work.” Featured in the 2023 BBC documentary series Planet Earth III, her undercover work in the Ivory Coast aimed at thwarting the illegal ivory trade brought significant awareness to the plight of wildlife trafficking, showcasing her bravery and dedication to conservation.

“The way I see it, the more you move, the more you learn. I was able to have lots of opportunities working with people from different backgrounds and was lucky to do so.”

– Dr Trang Nguyen

Meanwhile in her home country of Vietnam, Trang continues to make significant steps forward in wildlife conservation education were there were once no courses on biodiversity conservation, something she was compelled to change. “We have been working with local universities to push for such a course. Over the last five years, we've run short courses to test the demand, and people are interested. By the end of this year (2024), we will have the first-ever biodiversity conservation class in Vietnam. It is going to be open for registration in October.”

She has also turned her attention to tackling gender equity issues in the conservation sector. “In Vietnam and other parts of the world, the sector is male dominated. It's difficult for women to work in wildlife conservation due to barriers and challenges such as harassment and gender bias. One of our graduates from Vietnam and a UK alumna was harassed on her first fieldwork experience. We now have a programme focusing on empowering women in conservation, teaching them how to identify, prevent, and respond to sexual harassment, as well as further help and support on how conducting fieldwork with analysing data and managing projects effectively.”

And Trang’s own organisation, WildAct, has education at the heart of all that it does. “We work with universities and advertise our courses, and we also train anti-poaching teams in national parks on data analysis and patrol planning. We aim to educate people about the risks of consuming animals and also educate kids in schools, inspiring wildlife conservationists of the future.”

Despite her vast efforts to bring attention to wildlife conversation across Vietnam, Trang continues to face barriers with government hostility towards local NGOs and the fight for better standards to be applied to zoos. Some people even face imprisonment when advocating for such changes. But her work is making a difference and highlights positive changes in local communities. “Many who used to be hunters now reach out to help us. It is small progress, but it adds up, changes and improves.” She also has many success stories from her training programmes in Vietnam, where almost 60% of trainees have secured full-time jobs and students are going on to help train the next generation on conservationists.

With the next generation in mind, Trang has even written and produced a series of picture books aimed at children, inspired by her childhood love for manga. Her first book Saving Sorya: Chang and the Sun Bear was released in 2021, followed by Saving H'non: Chang and the Elephant in 2022. Trang believes in the power of stories to inspire change, particularly among children. “I never thought I would write a book as I'm not good with words, but I did it because I still remember the messages from the manga I read as a child such as Doraemon. With the main character of my book being a girl also tells girls that they can do everything they want, as long as they put their hearts and minds into it.” Trang recognises that while humans are the problem when it comes to conservation, they are also the solution. She believes it's easier to inspire positive change in those who have not yet formed opinions on how society should work and that’s why she was inspired to write children’s books.

Trang’s unwavering pursuit of education, and the education of others, has led her to be recognised as the East Asia winner of the 2023 British Council Study UK Alumni Award for Science and Sustainability. She was also selected as a Global Finalist.

As part of winning the award, the British Council arranged a return visit to the UK for Trang in May 2024, for her to reconnect with the universities that helped to launch her career. “It's really sweet coming back and seeing how much Liverpool has changed since I graduated. When I first arrived many years ago, I was amazed at how much English people care about nature by simply watering the garden and how people create ecosystems for animals such as insects and reptiles by simply placing stones around hedges.”

During Trang’s visit to LJMU, she met with students and staff from the wildlife conservation programme that she studied on. Together they visited Chester Zoo, whom LJMU regularly works with, using expertise and research to support their conservation efforts, including using AI and drone technology, as well as offering opportunities for student collaboration throughout their studies.

Collaboration and the adoption of new technologies are vital to conversation work and Trang is optimistic of the transformative role of technology, such as AI and drones, in enhancing conservation efficiency. “These tools have revolutionised data collection and analysis, making monitoring wildlife and tracking conservation progress easier. You save a lot of time, it's efficient. Sorting through pictures and identifying species used to take a long time,” says Trang.

Trang also had the opportunity to present to students and staff her work through WildAct before catching up with Simon Dowell, current Science Director at Chester Zoo, and Jennifer Jones, who both taught Trang when she studied with the Faculty of Science at LJMU.

Returning to LJMU’s city campus, where she began her studies 16 years ago, Trang met with Biological and Environmental Sciences Professor Serge Wich, who discussed the use of LJMU’s thermal drones and wildlife conservation research that the university and its academics are currently working on, including research into spider monkeys in Mexico, crocodiles in Nepal, and identifying different tree species in Tanzania. She also met Dr Carl Chalmers and Professor Paul Fergus to discuss the Conservation AI technology used at LJMU to allow real time camera detection of animals across the globe. The cameras are currently being used for research in South Africa and are near indestructible, having so far survived a lion’s bite and only fallen victim to being crushed by an elephant!

Trang is absolutely a role model for others who would like to follow a career in wildlife conservation and to those looking to study abroad. “If you really want to do something and are passionate, then just go for it. I come from Vietnam, and when I chose my field, I did my research. I love Africa and always wanted to go there, so I did. The way I see it, the more you move, the more you learn. I was able to have lots of opportunities working with people from different backgrounds and was lucky to do so.”