German conservationist's lifelong dedication to protecting Vietnam's primates

The establishment of the Emergency Primates Rescue Center (EPRC) in Cuc Phuong National Park (Ninh Binh Province) was initiated by Nguyen Thi Thu Hien and her husband Tilo Nadler.

Driven by love, Nguyen Thi Thu Hien, originally from Hanoi's Old Quarter, decided to leave urban life behind and venture into the forests alongside her German husband. Together, they embarked on a mission across Vietnam's mountains to rescue endangered primate species.

The love story of Hien and Tilo

Over their 25-year commitment to the Vietnam Primate Conservation Project and EPRC at Cuc Phuong National Park, Nguyen Thi Thu Hien and Tilo Nadler have become well-known and cherished figures within the professional community and among locals residing near the forests.

Originally trained as a refrigeration engineer, Tilo developed a profound interest in wildlife and began collaborating with the Frankfurt Zoological Society in Germany. In 1991-1992, he spent three months in Vietnam to confirm the existence of the Delacour's langur, a species previously presumed extinct in the wild before its rediscovery in Vietnam.

Upon returning to Germany and completing his documentary, Tilo drafted a conservation project for this newly rediscovered primate species. However, after a year without any conservation experts applying for the project management role, he volunteered in January 1993 to implement the "Enhancing Forest Protection in Cuc Phuong and Conservation of the Delacour's langur" project, scheduled from 1993 to 1996.

Nguyen Thi Thu Hien and Tilo Nadler have spent over 30 years devoted to rescuing primates in Vietnam's mountainous forests.

During the early stages of the project, Tilo found the love of his life in Vietnam, a Hanoi native named Nguyen Thi Thu Hien (born in 1972). While preparing for university entrance exams, Hien worked part-time at a handicraft store where she met Tilo. With a strong, adventurous spirit and a desire to improve her foreign language skills, Hien became a tour guide in Ha Long and Ninh Binh and began collaborating on Tilo's project.

Their love blossomed despite her parents' initial disapproval. After graduating from the Economics Department at Hanoi University, Hien decided to leave the city and join Tilo in the forests of Cuc Phuong, living and working alongside him. By 2000, her family accepted their relationship, and they married, despite the 31-year age difference.

Sitting in a small boat watching the Delacour's langurs in Van Long Wetland Nature Reserve, Hien shared, "Despite my family's opposition, I ultimately married the man I love. Tilo is, above all, a sincere friend, a passionate scientist, a model boss, and a mentor who introduced me to the new field of nature conservation, and the man I deeply love and admire. He instilled in me a love for wildlife and taught me the right way to appreciate and protect them."

The Delacour's langur, scientifically known as Trachypithecus delacouri, is named after the French-American ornithologist Jean Theodore Delacour. It is a large primate species belonging to the family Cercopithecidae, order Primates. This species is endemic to Vietnam, found nowhere else on Earth, and is listed in both the Vietnam Red Data Book (2007) and the global Red List as CR (Critically Endangered).

Mission to rescue endangered primates

Initially, Tilo and the Frankfurt Zoological Society planned for the project to last only three years following the rediscovery of the Delacour's langur. By the end of 1996, instead of transferring the project to Vietnamese management, Tilo chose to remain at Cuc Phuong National Park, and the project was extended for another three years, then repeatedly extended in five-year terms. Since October 1997, Thu Hien has officially worked on the project, partnering with Tilo in all activities.

Recognizing that wild animals, particularly primates in Vietnam, are being hunted and trafficked illegally, Tilo proposed to Cuc Phuong National Park and the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development to establish the EPRC. This initiative is crucial, as a majority of rescued primates are found injured. The EPRC was formally established at Cuc Phuong National Park in June 1995, primarily focusing on three primate groups, namely gibbons, langurs, and lorisidae. It stands as the first wildlife rescue center in Indochina.

Between 1993 and 2000, a study by the Frankfurt Zoological Society confirmed the presence of 19 small populations of Delacour's langur spread across provinces such as Ninh Binh, Hoa Binh, Thanh Hoa, Ha Nam, and Ha Tay (now part of Hanoi). Shockingly, within a decade, 14 of these populations vanished due to hunting and deforestation.

Recognizing Van Long Wetland in Ninh Binh as the habitat with the largest population of Delacour's langur (according to Guinness Vietnam 2010), deemed crucial for their long-term survival, Tilo and the Frankfurt Zoological Society provided data and proposed to Vietnam's scientific and management authorities to establish the Van Long Wetland Nature Reserve. Since 2001, Thu Hien and Tilo have actively supported the development of this significant nature reserve.

Over the project's first eight years, Thu Hien and Tilo dedicated themselves to regular forest patrols, spending two to three nights weekly alongside forest rangers at Cuc Phuong National Park to combat forest encroachments by illegal loggers. They assisted in seizing illicit timber, accompanied forest rangers to hospitals after confrontations with loggers and poachers, and participated in rescuing langurs across various provinces or conducting primate surveys. Despite enduring miscarriages and injuries during their forest protection duties, Thu Hien remains resolute, never wavering in her commitment.

"Our roles are diverse, and it feels like this work is in our blood," Thu Hien confidently stated, her eyes reflecting hope for Vietnam's conservation endeavors.

In their early years without established connections, Thu Hien and Tilo personally sought out habitats where primate species lived, often persuading and sometimes debating with local residents and authorities to secure acceptance for animals at the rescue center in Cuc Phuong. Each time Thu Hien shared the poignant stories of the Delacour's langurs, her deep affection for them brought tears to her eyes.

To date, the EPRC has rescued 200-300 Delacour's langurs, with only two-thirds surviving. Upon arrival, all primate individuals undergo a thorough 6-week quarantine, receive medical care, and undergo rehabilitation to restore their health. They are then integrated into breeding groups for reproductive purposes. Offspring individuals born at the EPRC are gradually introduced to semi-wild environments to reacquaint themselves with natural behaviors. Eventually, these animals are reintroduced into their natural habitats, ensuring their safety and respecting their original distribution areas.

Besides their efforts in caring for and rescuing primates, Thu Hien and Tilo have partnered with various domestic and international film crews, playing a crucial role in shifting community awareness towards biodiversity conservation. Tilo's dedication has garnered him immense respect, including the highest honors awarded to conservation experts globally and several other prestigious accolades.

"Tilo, the Knight of the Old Forest," "Primate Lord," and "Hero" are titles bestowed upon Tilo by local residents, reflecting their deep respect for the German expert who has devoted nearly half his life to protecting primates and conserving Vietnam's natural heritage.

Since 2017, Thu Hien and Tilo have stepped back from managing EPRC, passing the reins to another organization. Shortly after, they co-founded the Three Monkeys Wildlife Conservancy with a Belgian biologist to continue their primate conservation efforts. They remain actively involved, advising and supporting the preservation of pristine habitats in Ninh Binh Province until now.

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