‘We are wildlife conservationists’: Minh Nguyen wants to save endangered animals in Southeast Asia

Minh Nguyen doing field work

Through her journey to save the large-antlered muntjac, CSU doctoral student Minh Nguyen has worked with world-renowned researchers trying to save rare mammals. Photo: Do Van Thoai

Minh Nguyen’s research is focused on the large-antlered muntjac, a critically endangered barking deer rarely seen by people. The muntjac lives in the rugged Annamite Range bordering the Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.

A doctoral student at Colorado State University in the Warner College of Natural Resources, Nguyen began her studies in Fort Collins in January 2021 as part of her long-term goals to develop conservation efforts for the muntjac.

a large-antlered muntjac
photo: Bill Robichaud

At CSU, she works with Professor Joel Berger, who holds the Barbara Cox Anthony University Chair in Wildlife Conservation. He also studies rare mammals — including the Chilean huemul and saiga in Mongolia — which is one reason why he and Nguyen bonded over their research. He is also a senior scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Berger said that Nguyen was a great fit for his lab and the University.

“I wanted to work with her because of her indefatigable persistence and field experience with endangered species in Southeast Asia,” he said.

Nguyen’s research is currently supported by the American Association of University Women, National Geographic Society, World Wildlife Foundation, Wildlife Conservation Network and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Program at CSU. Nguyen also recently received a graduate scholarship from the Wildlife Conservation Society and a Russell E. Train Fellowship from the World Wildlife Foundation, both of which will support her next year.

Interest in wildlife began in childhood

Nguyen said that she’s been interested in wildlife since she was a child.

In Vietnam, where she grew up, there aren’t a lot of options for studying wildlife conservation. And the options that do exist are hard to find because they are not well-publicized.

portrait of Minh Nguyen, a PhD student at Colorado State University
Nguyen started her doctoral studies at CSU in January 2021. Photo: John Eisele/CSU

Nguyen said that her peers, educational professionals and family members promote and push fields aimed at careers in commerce and medicine. She pursued an undergraduate degree in biotechnology as a compromise, since that was viewed as a worthy career path.

“When I got to the university, I realized that there were courses I could take on wildlife and ecology, and teachers that were very interested in these fields,” said Nguyen. “I tried to find chances to work with them, studying amphibians, reptiles, fish and birds.”

At the same time, Nguyen was also trying to figure out how she might fit into the bigger picture of conservation efforts in Vietnam and Laos. She began working for the Wildlife Conservation Society and learned about the saola — a large mammal that has rarely been seen — and the muntjac.

“As a Vietnamese citizen, I only learned about these endangered animals after getting a job in wildlife conservation,” she said. “I want to commit myself to the conservation of Annamite wildlife so that they will hopefully flourish and be appreciated by many future Vietnamese generations.”

Muntjac are currently being hunted using snares made out of materials including bicycle cables and strung in forests throughout Vietnam, even in protected areas. Park rangers have found more than 27,000 of these snares in one national park, which highlights the level of risk for the muntjac and other animals, including saola and bears.

Nguyen wants to quantify the impact that snares have on the viability of muntjac populations, with an aim to show what level of protection is needed to maintain healthy groups of these endangered animals.

Teaming up with world-renowned conservationists

Through her journey to save the large-antlered muntjac, Nguyen met and worked with Lorraine Scotson, a wildlife researcher and CEO of the nonprofit Saola Foundation for Annamite Mountains Conservation.

Scotson has held several positions with the International Union for Conservation of Nature, considered the global authority on the status of the natural world and the measures needed to safeguard it.

They traveled together and conducted field work in Vietnam in 2019, and Scotson said that she was immediately impressed by Nguyen’s expertise.

“Minh struck me as incredibly talented with her level of intelligence, strategic thinking and dedication to wildlife,” said Scotson.

She also found her bravery and courage in the field remarkable. Scotson recalled traveling by motorbike — while she was four months pregnant — as Nguyen drove the two of them on dirt roads in remote areas in southern Vietnam.

“Minh quickly became a close friend of mine who I admire and go to for advice on a broad spectrum, both personally and professionally,” Scotson said. “She’s an incredible human being.”

Urgent need to save the muntjac, other rare mammals

Nguyen said that she’s excited to be working with Berger and appreciates his “outside of the box” approach to wildlife conservation, which will be needed as she studies the muntjac.

She hopes to return to Asia in late 2022 to conduct field work.

While there, Nguyen said that she wants to meet up with students from her Mammal Study Group, to work with them and make them proud to say that “we are wildlife conservationists.”

“The Annamites is in urgent need for support more than ever to effectively conserve multiple extraordinary species before it’s too late,” she said.