Making the switch from wildlife photographer to wildlife conservation photographer was going to be a doddle. Or so I thought. Although conservation photography entailed uncovering the gritty environmental challenges behind the beautiful one dimensional wildlife photos, the concept appeared much the same.
Nothing like unconscious incompetence to smooth the journey of ignorance. This could not have been more true than my initial foray into the illegal wildlife trade in the communist state of Vietnam. Ironically, it was the initial outlandish success of the project that gave me the biggest problems; leaving me feeling like a rather disorientated and powerless Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole.
One moment I was doing the school run, and days later I was in Hanoi, planning to go undercover to get photographs of potentially dangerous illegal wildlife traders. Using a bit of British blag, I sourced a local man to act as translator and fixer (of all things dubious). Although I was driven by an intense passion for the natural world and a desire to improve its lot, my translator was not. However, he had a streetwise edge and a sense of adventure that I hoped would get him through the upcoming dangers.
Sitting in the foyer of a budget but decadently decorated hotel, we made contact with an illegal bear bile dealer in Hanoi whose phone number was painfully easy to source online. Within days of making first contact with this lawless underworld, the dealer was driving me to a secret remote location to meet some illegal wildlife farmers. It turned out to be Nghe An Province, one of Vietnam's stronghold for the illegal wildlife trade.
After hours of driving in the relentless Vietnamese heat, I realised that the biggest problem at this point was the dealer's excessive hospitality. On route to to a local hotel, it became apparent that he would not be happy until he had seen me safely registered at reception. In Vietnam this means handing over passports, but as my undercover name did not match my official documents. Well, you can envisage the dangers of blowing one's cover.
As I was to discover, going undercover in Vietnam would be littered with such nerve-wracking incidents. They were mostly overcome by slight of hand and persuasiveness but were accompanied by a lack of appetite brought on by the sheer terror of the situation. The following day I was collected and driven through a confusing array of dusty back roads and villages before pulling up outside an inconspicuous house. I was ushered in to a dining room to meet the senior patriarchal members of this Vietnamese crime syndicate to share a ceremonial tea.
Their only question was to ask my age. However, their unashamed laughter at what turned out to be an attempt to marry off their single Hanoi dealer proved the perfect anti-dote for settling my uneasy state. When these curious introductions were over, the less assertive members of the household tentatively began emerging. Feeling massively outnumbered, the scenario swerved from farcical to terrifying.
This unnervingly large group corralled me into a dark and breathtakingly sweaty room at the back of the house. Once acclimatised to the gloom, a room full of desperate and subservient eyes appeared, belonging to cages full of Asiatic Black Bears. The illegal wildlife farmers bear of choice. With nothing to stimulate these naturally intelligent animals, a life behind bars in a dark cell had sent them into a near catatonic state. Just one 7 month cub desperately stretched out its paw between the bars for contact, still enthused with a sense of hope.
The reason for this illegal trade? The bile in their gall bladder contains ursodeoxycholic acid, an ingredient that has long been prized in Traditional Asian Medicine for curing a multitude of unrelated ailments from seizures, to bruises to gall stones. Custom associates the bear with strength, and for this reason artificial and natural alternatives are shunned. Particularly by young men mixing bile with rice wine and vodka on a night out or old men hoping to regain their long-lost virility.
With the illegal nature of bear bile farming there are no training courses to learn how to extract bile from the gall bladder. If the bears survive this life-threatening procedure they are repeatedly subjected to this crude and unhygienic operation. According to Dr Johanna Painer, Four Paws rescue vet from Vetmeduni Vienna, “they are kept alive with antibiotics.” Empty antibiotic bottles are a telltale sign that bear owners are extracting bile.
Bear bile farms are often only classified as animal welfare issues. Although the intense cruelty prevents breeding this has a knock on conservation impact. Nguyen D. T. Minh, Research and Data Management Officer from TRAFFIC states "we still see them as a laundry facility for bears from the wild." Vietnam has now lost >60% of their wild Asiatic Black bears in the last 30 years making bear bile farming a conservation priority.
The turning point for my project came when the bear owner revealed he had "got bears from Laos when 1kg. Now 3 years old.” This confirmed my observation that the bears all looked rather small but uncovered something vital. Not only had he broken international CITES legislation having bought an Appendix I protected species from abroad but they were born after the official microchip programme in 2005. I had stumbled upon an enclave of illegal unchipped bears. Something I was led to believe didn’t really exist in Vietnam.
Consequently the Wildlife Crime and Investigations Unit of Education for Nature are now managing the rescue of these 13 bears and has initiated important conservation activities in 3 of Vietnam's toughest illegal wildlife trade districts as a direct consequence of this project. So in those moments when I question the sanity of my career change, I guess I can look at the direct conservation impact that my work is allowing and know that I am achieving my goal.