Founded more than three years ago with just three members, Ho Chi Minh City's first forest ranger team devoted to wildlife has proven to be an effective force.
Nguyen Van Khanh remembers when the team was established by the Wildlife At Risk a US-based non-profit organization, and HCMC Forest Rangers Agency in July, 2008.
Khanh, who is now in his late forties, was working with the other two rangers at an ecological forest in Can Gio District.
Khanh, Le Van Liem (also his late forties) and Le Dai Ve, 29, didn't have much experience working with investigations.
"During the first two months, we barely accomplished anything," Khanh said. "We drove around the city on motorbikes without knowing how to approach [suspects dealing in wildlife].".
The city's center was then full of vendors who brazenly dealt wildlife in the streets.
Khanh said that when he and his colleagues approached the vendors in their uniforms, no one took them seriously.
It was not uncommon that during confiscations and inspections for dealers to try to wrestle animals away from the rangers or simply run away.
The team quickly learned that they would have to begin conducing reconnaissance in cooperation with other law enforcement agencies, including the newly-established environmental police force.
They began setting up stings by disguising themselves as buyers and approaching traffickers.
The tack has worked. This year they busted fifty dealers.
In the biggest confiscation of the year, Khanh and Ve spent nearly one month tracking a snake butcher in District 12 based on a tip provided by a local resident.
According to Khanh, they visited the shop many times, but only saw normal species, adding that they even spent VND350,000 ($17.95) buying a kilogram of snake to win the dealer's trust.
After discovering a suspicious truck near the property, they organized a sting with other agencies. During the bust, agents seizing 43 kilograms of snakes, (including three King Cobras) and iguanas.
Lately, the team has begun tracking illegal rings online.
Liem recalled that, while surfing the net, he came across a young man in District 11 advertising a pair of baby otters for VND3.5 million ($179.53).
Liem approached the man but was unable to learn where he'd obtained the creatures.
He asked a confidante to order an otter from the dealer. More than one month later, the young man called back. During the transaction, the rangers and a team of police officers swept in and confiscating two otters and an iguana.
"Police have sought charges in the case, because the animals are categorized as 1B, meaning that they are strictly protected by Vietnamese laws," he said.
"Thanks to them, many animals have been brought to the Cu Chi Center for Wildlife Rescue to be rehabilitated and released back into the wild." said Nguyen Dinh Cuong, chief of the HCMC Forest Rangers Agency.
The HCMC trio, meanwhile, said the greatest challenge for them isn't busting illegal dealers.
They have the hardest time trying to convince people to release captive animals that they're not allowed to own.
"We have to convince them that many people have agreed to submit their animals voluntarily," he said. "We have to convince them that they have a right to see how the animals are released to forests.".
Some have bitterly agreed to give up the eanimals, while others are reduced to tears, he said.
Liem told the story of how they convinced an 80-year-old father and his 50-year old mentally retarded daughter to release a monkey that had lived with her for years.
"The father agreed to submit it, while the daughter cried a lot, making us feel sympathetic," he said, adding that the woman later visited the monkey, a few days later, at the Cu Chi Center for Wildlife Rescue, before it was freed into the forest.
While it's not easy to maintain a black and white attitude towards their work, the rangers remain dedicated to their mission.
"Our greatest happiness is seeing a rescued animal being released back into the wild," Khanh said. "That's when our job is truly completed in a meaningful way."