Annually, the Disney Conservation Fund recognises individuals or teams from around the world as Disney Conservation Heroes for their incredible actions to save wildlife, protect habitats and inspire communities to engage in conservation. To date, Disney has honoured more than 200 Conservation Heroes globally, with each recipient and their nominating nonprofit organisation sharing a US $1,500 award.

This year, our two Conservation Heroes are Le Van Hien of Vietnam and Melvin Smith of Saint Lucia, who were recognised for their outstanding efforts in protecting critically endangered species in their local environments. Our two heroes have inspired their communities to engage in conservation, reduce ecologically harmful activities, and care for the native wildlife and plant species that create the rich ntural tapestry of their local environments.

Protecting Vietnam’s critically endangered Delacour’s langur

Le Van Hien is a true Conservation Hero for two reasons – his efforts to change himself from a hunter to a conservationist, and his great contributions to the protection of critically endangered Delacour’s langurs in Vietnam.

Born to a purely agricultural family living adjacent to Kim Bang forest, Mr Hien’s childhood was plagued by the difficulties of poverty.  With his secondary school education behind him, in the early 1980s, Mr Hien was trained by senior family members to hunt and trap wildlife, which offered a difficult, but reliable livelihood. Mr Hien became a talented hunter due to his patience, keen observational skills, ability to manage the difficult terrain of Kim Bang, and his deep understanding of every corner of the forest. He led a successful team of hunters and trappers for years.

But in 1992 his life changed dramatically.  Well-known locally as the person with the best understanding of Kim Bang’s challenging terrain, Mr Hien was chosen by world-renowned primatologist Tilo Nadler and his colleagues to help conduct a survey on the populations of Delacour’s langur in Kim Bang forest.  After witnessing the dedication, care and concern of these primatologists for this langur and other wildlife species, Hien had a change of heart and decided to stop hunting and trapping.

Meet Le Van: Vietnam’s hunter turned conservationist 1
Credit: Uong Si Hung/FFI

Mr Hien soon returned to farming to provide for his family, but continued to explore and map the local rugged terrain and forest. He used this knowledge to assist primatologists and conservation experts in conducting surveys and field studies, guiding research teams over forest trials, locating the caves of the Delacour’s langur, and identifying the primate’s favourite sources of food in the forest.

Over time, he became known as a local field expert in primate conservation. He collected valuable information and photos for scientists and was invited to share his experience at many conferences and workshops.

Meet Hien: Vietnam’s hunter turned conservationist 1
Credit: Uong Si Hung/FFI

Mr Hien assisted FFI experts to conduct Delacour’s langur population surveys and monitoring. He led the team to places where the species has been seen, and provided information on the forest’s history. He was part of the team of FFI experts to rediscover the second largest viable population of Delacour’s langur in Kim Bang forest.

Thanks to his ability to tell stories with fluency and conviction, Mr Hien has raised environmental and conservation awareness of young and old people throughout the area. He has participated in many workshops to share his own history, urging people to help protect Vietnam’s endemic primates, to take pride in local species like the Delacour’s langur.

Meeting Hien

Your job involves a lot of physical work exploring the landscape and conducting surveys. What keeps you inspired and motivated to get out into the forest each day to protect these primates?

I am not as young and healthy as I was some years ago, so my motivation to work has always been the thought of returning to nature and protecting these primates that I used to hunt in the past. Also, when I am in the forest, I myself can feel a close connection to it as my second home.

What have you found to be the best way to engage your local community in primate conservation?

I think that the consistent cooperation between the NGOs, local authorities and local people is a crucial factor for effective conservation. In particular, promoting communication is also a key element to raise awareness to local people and attract their participation.

You have played a vital role in the conservation of Delacour’s langur. Why do you think it’s so important that we conserve this species?

Previously, economic pressure, lack of understanding and poor communication meant that people did not know the rarity and significance of this species. I myself was also not an exception. Luckily, thanks to the sharing and advice from research experts at the time, I changed my thoughts and actions. Worldwide, Delacour’s langur has only existed in Vietnam, particularly in Van Long, Kim Bang and Hoa Binh province, so our mission to protect this species is very urgent.

Delacour’s langur is critically endangered and found only in Vietnam. Credit: Matthew Maran/FFI

“To do this job, you must love it and accept its dangers.”

Over the years, you’ve been on many expeditions where you’ve led teams through difficult terrain – have you ever encountered any dangerous or challenging experiences?

Since I was officially attached to conservation work in 2016, one of my biggest challenges has been working on difficult terrain surrounded by craggy limestone mountain ranges every month. Therefore, it has lots of potential risks for injuries. For example, last year there were two unfortunate incidents including members in our team falling whilst out working on the terrain. To do this job, you must love it and accept its dangers.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing Delacour’s langur, and what needs to be done to address them? 

The biggest threat right now comes from quarry businesses. The process of blasting has caused damage to the langur’s forest habitat and has worsened air pollution. The second one is hunting. Until now, after the intensive patrol processes, our team is proud to have contributed to reducing wildlife hunting in this area. Therefore, the threats from firearms have been somewhat decreased, which facilitates us to complete our work.

Looking at solutions – considering the lack of human resources in our team and the conflicts between conservation areas and business sectors – my aspiration is the involvement of authorities and law to join hands and protect this langur. As for my part, I affirm that although I’m just an employee doing my job, I am proud to have my family’s companionship and encouragement from my wife. As long as my health is good, I will still contribute to conservation careers. I will never get discouraged, even when our team (CCT) only has one member left.

Meet Hien: Vietnam’s hunter turned conservationist
Hunting is one of the most significant threats to Delacour’s langur. Credit: Uong Si Hung/FFI

What advice would you give to other local conservation enthusiasts who want to protect their native wildlife?

I have often advised and encouraged my colleagues to love the profession and keep the flame of passion in their work. Of course, the income is important – but if they always think seriously about the money, and forget the responsibility they are doing, almost all Delacour’s langur in the world will disappear. As long as I am in good health, I hope that our teammates, even when there are only one or two people left, will keep working to protect wild animals and plants in Ha Nam. In general, this is also what I want to convey to other avid conservation enthusiasts in all areas.