Former illegal loggers become tour guides in Vietnam

STORY: In this National Park in Vietnam, the tour guides have an unexpected career history.

They’re former illegal loggers.

Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is a UNESCO World heritage site and is home to one of the world's largest cave systems.

Tour guide Ngoc Anh knows this jungle well.

Particularly the valuable trees that grow here – because he used to chop them down for timber.

[Nguyen Ngoc Anh / Oxalis Adventure Tours / Safety Assistant]

"My name is Ngoc Anh, the safety assistant for Oxalis Tours. Prior to this, I made my living by illegal logging activities, but now I have returned here with a new role - a protector of the forest while going on trips that explore nature and its wildlife."

Anh and others would often carry 220 pound logs on their backs out of a rapidly thinning forest

When they ran out of valuable trees in Vietnam, they crossed the border to Laos to chop down trees there.

But as extreme rainfall and flooding began to affect his community,

Anh read up on the ongoing climate and nature crises and turned instead to tourism and conservation.

Now, he is one of 250 former loggers trained by an adventure tourism company.

The team lead tour groups through jungles and caves,

patrol the trails to keep poachers away,

remove animal traps and clean up trash.

"Previously, whenever I saw a large and valuable piece of wood, my head would estimate how tall the tree is, and how it could be cut into logs of various sizes. But now that I'm a part of the tourism business, when I see such a tree, I would just tell the tour group of how valuable this tree is."

According to Global Forest Watch, Vietnam lost about 3 million hectares of tree cover between 2001 and 2020

A government crackdown on illegal logging since 2007 has helped slow the rate of deforestation

and the country has joined a recent global pledge to end deforestation by 2030.

[Howard Limbert / Head / British Cave and Research Association]

"Normally, tourism is bad for conservation but it's the opposite here because we've employed all the people who were doing illegal activities, we find now there's a lot more animals in the jungle, they're more protected because of tourism. Now that's unusual but it appears to be working really well in this area."

The guides now earn less than half of what they earned in their logging days,

but hope to earn more as tourism and travel gradually resume.

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