Vietnamese teacher buys hunters' monkeys for release

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Tran Quoc Viet, a teacher in Kon Tum Province, and a black-shanked douc langur that he saved from local hunters. Supplied photo

Tran Quoc Viet, a young teacher in the Central Highlands who saved a rare monkey from hunters earlier this year, has taken another injured monkey into his care as of last Thursday, Tuoi Tre reported.

The science teacher at Mang But Commune Secondary School in Kon Tum Province also runs a small store selling things not available in the highlands such as fish sauce, dried fish and oil for light, allowing him some extra income to pursue his wildlife hobbies.

His store was packed with people that Thursday afternoon.

They jostled over a monkey around three months old. It had a cut across its abdomen after being caught in a snare.

A man from the Ba Na ethnic group offered to sell it to Viet.

The teacher recalled how he got the monkey for only VND150,000 (US$7).

"I told the man it's not a normal monkey, but a douc langur, and the government strictly bans its hunting, and that any harm to it can be punished by at least ten years in jail."

After the transaction, Viet asked the hunter to tell any other hunters that knew about the monkey that it had escaped.

"It's actually a normal monkey. But I didn't have enough money for a real trade. I had to scare them so they gave it to me at any price."

Viet and his brother, who is staying with him, stayed up for two nights keeping a fire in the house to warm the monkey. He also bought a milk bottle to feed the animal.

"It recognizes me now," Viet said.

He said he's going to keep the monkey for several months until it's strong enough to bring it to the other side of the jungle.

The hero 'never more depressed'

Viet was in class one day at the end of March when his phone rang and there was a local man wanting to sell him some black-shanked douc langurs, which are an endangered species protected under Vietnamese laws.

Viet asked another teacher to look after his class and he came home to see the two langurs, a mother and her child.

"I was never more depressed than at that moment.

"The mother must have been starved as she dropped her head once in while, and the baby dug its hands into the mother's belly out of fear."

Viet said he managed to bargain the langurs for one liter of cooking oil and ten packs of instant noodles, as he threatened to report them to local rangers otherwise.

Then he called a wildlife center to be instructed on how to take care of the animals. "I was so confused holding the precious creatures."

Minutes after he made the call, his phone rang again and this time someone wanted to buy the langurs for VND20 million.

"I had to assume that the rangers wanted to test me," he told Tuoi Tre.

Viet kept the langurs for two days until experts from Cat Tien National Park came to take them.

He said those two days were the most worrisome time in his life -- he could barely feed the animals -- but also the most memorable.

"I had to ask some friends in the city to buy me a milk bottle while I looked for some fresh milk, but then experts from the wildlife center called and scolded me terribly, that I had to stop feeding them milk and look for wild leaves and fruits instead," Viet said, laughing.

Douc langurs are widely hunted in Southeast Asia for food, use in traditional medicine and for sale as pets as they are considered one of the most beautiful primates in the world.

No safe haven

Viet said he saved another langur through a deal in June and returned it to the jungle the day later. He and his brother had to drive the animal about 12 kilometers away.

"It's hard to find a safe place for it as there are snares everywhere."

Two days after that release, another man brought Viet another langur and he said he almost fainted thinking it was the same one he'd just released. But it turned out not to be.

The teacher, who is also busy raising three poor orphan students as his own children, said he is not sure if he is following the protocols when buying injured animals from hunters.

He's also afraid that people might suspect he's trafficking and condemned him as a bad teacher.

But he said that might be the only way he can help for now, as most men in the neighborhood are poor people who hunt for a living, and he, belonging to the major ethnic group in the country (Kinh), is considered their connection to the market outside their tribe.

Hoang Van Dam, Viet's principal, said his contributions to wildlife well being deserves some recognition.

Dam said he gives Viet his support, and sometimes advice, when he gets confused about the morality of what he's doing.

Viet said that at least his uncertainty is somehow balanced out by the bigger relief every time he saves an animal.

"The day me and my brother drove the langur into the jungle, once I released it, it immediately fled to its life. But then it stopped and looked at me with thankful eyes or something like that.

"The most haunting look in my life."

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