The ‘bear’ necessities in Vietnam – how an accidental career change led to a passion for animal welfare
I first met Dung Nguyen Van, Free the Bears Vietnam Programme Manager, in Cat Tien National Park (Vietnam) in 2017. He was very much a man on a mission as the brand-new bear sanctuary was due to open that July, and his pride for what they had achieved was unmistakable.
What I didn’t realise was that Dung was actually relatively new to wildlife rescue at that time, and that his route into the sector was not only comparatively late in his career, but also largely by accident.
Since our first meeting, two further bear houses have opened in Cat Tien and more than 50 Moon and Sun bears now call it their permanent home; yet talking to Dung six years on, his passion for the organisation’s work is certainly no less infectious.
Free the Bears
The origins of Free the Bears go back to the 1990s when Australian Mary Hutton learned of the plight of thousands of bears across Asia kept in coffin-like cages in order to be ‘milked’ for their bile for traditional medicine. With the head office in Australia, it now works in six countries across Asia and is perhaps most famous for its sanctuaries that have to date helped them to rescue an astonishing 1000 bears.
In Vietnam one of their key focuses has been bears from bile farms. Although bear bile farming was made illegal in Vietnam in 2005, at the time there were no sanctuaries to take the 4000+ bears, and having suffered such physical and mental trauma, sometimes over many years, they could not be released to the wild. Consequently, farmers were allowed to keep the bears on their sites, and their adherence to the new laws has been difficult to monitor.
Before chatting about his own role in Free the Bears, Dung first gave me a bit of an outline of the four main areas they focus on:
- Sanctuary & Raising Awareness
The most important and urgent thing is being able to provide bears with life-long sanctuary. While this is very much about animal protection and welfare, the work done by Free the Bears also has a wider conservation context. It is suspected that most of the bears on farms in Vietnam were taken from the wild, so raising awareness and education is a vital aspect of what they do.
Cat Tien NP is a beautiful, wildlife-rich area that is relatively easily accessible, and as such it is very popular with Vietnamese and foreign visitors every year. By engaging with people, especially young visitors, about what they do and why they do it, it helps people understand why it is so important to avoid bear products and bear bile to protect the bears that remain in the wild.
- Monitoring Wild Populations & Release
Free the bears also monitors forest areas to find evidence of wild populations of bears, and works closely with local authorities to protect them. In Laos and Cambodia they are in the early stages of trialing a release program for young bears who may be able to adapt to living back in the wild.
What does the role of Vietnam Programme Manager involve?
The Vietnam programme is located in Cat Tien NP, and the Programme Manager role is varied. However, Dung explained that on a day-to-day basis his role is mostly supervisory. He oversees the management of the staff onsite, and largely deals with construction development and the financial aspects. He keeps track of what is coming in and going out, including salaries, bills and finances connected to donations to the charity.
Dung also oversees all Free the Bears activity within Vietnam, coordinating and liaising with the wide range of people that are needed to help the organisation achieve its aims. This may be attending meetings with national park authorities or local government, cooperating with forest rangers from different provinces to further their work, or, significantly, visiting bear bile farms to encourage owners to give up their bears to the sanctuary.
What was your background prior to Free the Bears?
This was where he first paused, then laughed, and began with “It’s a long story!”
It turns out that Dung comes from an extensive background in social work, with both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in social work, and 10+ years working in the sector – largely in community development, social development research and working with children and women in difficult circumstances.
It’s perhaps natural to imagine that the overlap in skills between working in community development for the benefit of people, and working for the benefit of wildlife may have created an ‘in’ with Free the Bears. But it was actually a chance interpreter job in 2008 that changed the course of his career.
Dung explained that he was also working part-time as a social work supervisor at the Open University in Ho Chi Minh City at that time, and he “came to Free the Bears by accident.” A position came up as interpreter for the organisation (who were just establishing themselves in Vietnam). So, in those early years he worked as translator/interpreter and assistant, and then after some time moved into the education side of things.
However, Free the Bears stopped operating in Vietnam for a couple of years. Even when they came back to Cat Tien NP in 2014 he only helped out in an unofficial supporting role, until 2015 when he became Vietnam Programme Manager on a full-time basis. He then very quickly oversaw the building of that new forested sanctuary site in 2016, with the first group of bears moving in in 2017.
Speaking to Dung, it is very clear that he has embraced this switch to the conservation sector, but he readily admits that when he first came to work for Free the Bears it was just about earning a salary. It is over time that he developed a real passion for the work – or more accurately for what they achieve in doing it, and for the animals themselves.
What is the best thing about your role and working for Free the Bears?
Having explained his route into the sector, he accepts that his lack of conservation background means he has significant gaps in his knowledge. However, rather than seeing this as a disadvantage, it was the first thing he mentioned when asked what he liked about his job. He is having to “read more, research more, learn more,” and that is something that he really enjoys.
Also, while his typical day-to-day role is largely supervisory or administrative, being based at the Cat Tien site he is never far from the bears themselves. Any bear that is rescued and brought to the sanctuary affects him emotionally, and watching the bears that have been rescued from great trauma, feeding or playing in the forested enclosures, clearly drives his passion. His motivation is simple but clear – “I do a job that is very meaningful for wildlife.”
In March 2023, Free the Bears rescued the last bear held in Long An province, Vietnam, after 22 years on a bile farm. Watch the clip of the vital work they do:
There is also obvious pride in the work of his team and the work of Free the Bears generally, in putting the bears’ welfare at the forefront of how the sanctuary has developed.
From the materials used and designs of the new sanctuary buildings, the ‘hospital’, to the careful monitoring of the bears’ diets, and the enrichment they provide, he says “even though we don’t have much money, we do the best thing for animal welfare. I’m very proud of that.”
What is the worst thing about your job?
As Vietnam Programme Manager, Dung explains that he works liaising and cooperating with both local government and bear bile farmers, and this brings challenges with it. He says that some (not all) local government officials do not always support the work of the organization, believing that they make things difficult.
But the greatest difficulty of all can be in encouraging farmers to give up their bears to the organization. Free the Bears do not pay for bears, as this would just drive the wildlife trade. They work with authorities and farmers to encourage them to hand them over, and Dung says that these farmers sometimes “look at them like an enemy or a thief.”
It can be very challenging to connect with people that don’t like me or don’t like us, he says. “That is very difficult, and sometimes I want to give up. But I’m thinking about the animal, about the bears … That is the most important thing.”
What advice would you give to those that are looking to get into conservation or wildlife protection?
As someone who did not actively search out the sector, his advice is perhaps more reflective of his outlook on life and his own experience in switching careers.
During our chat he repeatedly shared that he very much believes that anyone, no matter their background, can contribute to conservation as a part of human life.
- Don’t miss any opportunity
In my own life, he says, I don’t miss any chance – I can study anything if I have time and if I have the money. Here he reminded me that as well as his two degrees in social work and philosophy, he also has a certificate in English language, a certificate in tour guiding, and even worked as a tailor for five years before university. And now he is enjoying learning everything he can about bear conservation and welfare. Any skill learned could lead to the opportunity you are hoping for.
- Take chances to volunteer
For students already on a pathway, he encourages them to volunteer for any related organisation, or to join any projects they can. As volunteering becomes more popular amongst the Vietnamese, he says that even if you are only able to contribute for one day that can have an effect personally. Anything you learn and experience can make you more confident but it may also “spark a light” for you to want to contribute more in a particular field. Like Dung himself, you may start your journey liking something or having an interest in something, but as you “learn more, search more, explore more” this leads to loving something – developing the passion that he sees as key.
Free the Bears in Vietnam offers paid for volunteering opportunities as short as a day (the ‘Bear Care Tour’) and as long as a couple of months – although Dung says that currently, the longer option is more popular with international rather than Vietnamese visitors.
- Hard work and passion over education
While we were chatting about the difference between Vietnamese and international organisations (or if there were any), Dung stopped me to make it clear that the believes that in all cases charities want to employ local people wherever possible – he believes that it is local people that in the long run contribute most to the protection of their native wildlife.
Also, importantly, within sanctuaries these local workers who are not necessarily educated to a high level fill a variety of roles absolutely key to the animals’ welfare and the charity’s aims.
What the charity looks for in an employee, he says, is hard work and passion, but interestingly Dung also reflects that you should not necessarily evaluate someone at the beginning of their time in a job. He believes it is important to give time to learn more and develop a real love for it before you evaluate anyone, including yourself, in a role.
Check out Free the Bears for updates on the main organisation and its sites across Asia. With hundreds of bears still held on farms in Vietnam, there is still more work to do, and more bear houses and enclosures are planned for the future.
Author Profile | Claire Tyrrell
Claire is a wildlife enthusiast and keen amateur conservationist, and has volunteered long-term in wildlife rescue and rehabilitation centres across Africa and Asia – largely working with primates. Having worked in the TEFL industry for quite some years (teaching, writing and editing) she has just recently also started working part-time for the National Trust in visitor welcome. Closer to home she volunteers with the Hampshire Wildlife Trust for a monthly Wildlife Watch children’s group and contributes to citizen science projects wherever possible.