While illegal deforestation is widespread in many areas of Vietnam, a jungle in the Central Highlands province of Kon Tum has been kept intact thanks to one fearless female ranger.
Chu Thi Phien, 52, has been in charge of a 44-man forest protection unit responsible for watching over Thach Nham forest in Kon Plong District for 12 years, and is respectfully referred to as the “female general of the jungle” by local people for her countless apprehensions of illegal loggers.
Chu Thi Phien was 40 years old when she was first appointed head of Thach Nham Forest Protection Unit in 2004. At the time the appointment was unprecedented, and was explained by one simple reason – Phien could drink alcohol like water and was “as fierce as a tigress.”
Officials in Kon Plong recall Phien’s one-of-a-kind recruitment criteria back when she first took office – whoever wanted to work for her had to be able to drink alcohol.
Phien’s deputy Pham Ngoc Vinh was a hard-headed martial arts master in Kon Tum who had defeated countless opponents across the central provinces and highlands of Vietnam.
Vinh said he asked Phien to be her subordinate after hearing the news, attributing the decision to his admiration for Phien’s aggressive and fierce nature.
Vinh recalled the contemptuous look Phien gave him, followed by the question, “What can you possibly do for me?”
“I’m a martial arts master. I can… fight,” Vinh replied.
Phien then looked the man up and down before asking, “Can you drink? If not, then get lost.”
“When I said I could drink a little, she snapped her fingers and said, ‘Okay, I will drink with you. Let’s see what you got’. She immediately took two bottles of rice wine out of her cupboard and said, ‘Drink!’” Vinh recalled.
Vinh recalled that while he was still taking his bottle to the other side of the table, Phien had already finished her bottle in one gulp. Vinh made it through half of his before blacking out, and so was given the job.
Being the only woman among 44 members of Thach Nham Forest Protection Unit, Phien said commanding an all-male unit of rangers was no piece of cake.
“Give men some alcohol and they become super hard-headed,” Phien explained of her method of recruiting members to her unit, “They won’t fear loggers anymore. They [loggers] will only cringe when they see my fearless rangers. What good is a ranger if you are afraid of loggers?”
Phien added that residents living in the forests were mostly ethnic minorities who drank alcohol like water, so officials had to be able to drink to talk to the people.
Asked how much alcohol she could consume, Phien burst out laughing, “It’s immeasurable, though I’ve never been wasted in my life no matter how much I drink. In the mountains, they don’t count alcohol by liters, but by days”.
“Thanks to her, the forest is doing rather well”
Thach Nham forest lies on the national route that is used by illegal loggers to transport wood south to the central provinces.
To protect the forest, a ranger in the area requires not only passion but also courage, commitment, and a willingness to spill blood whenever necessary.
In Thach Nham and neighboring villages, Phien is dubbed the “jungle ghost” or the “fierce tigress” since she can be seen roaming the forest at all times.
Most successful apprehensions of loggers in the area are led by Phien, whose team can spend days walking and camping in the forest without anything to eat in order to ambush violators.
In one example that demonstrates her determination to beat the loggers, Phien was once informed of the illegal activity in Thach Nham forest, however when she phoned her subordinate in the area, the ranger denied that it was happening. He was later fired after Phien went to investigate herself, armed with nothing but an electric rod.
Loggers in Kon Plong cringe when they hear about Phien, while her colleagues turn pale when recalling past missions.
Phien said the principle she set out for her subordinates when dealing with loggers was no compromise and no mercy, and it’s her uncompromising attitude that has gained her several death threats throughout her term.
She once received a message from a strange number, which she later found out belonged to a timber smuggler that she had once arrested. The text read, “You should prepare some swabs and medicines for yourself. Or you can borrow some from me, since you will need them soon”.
At the following week’s briefing, Phien read the text message to her subordinates and asked, “Are you scared?” to which they unanimously replied, “Bring it on”.
Thanks to the fearless spirit of Phien and her team, 83 percent of the 30,000 hectares of Thach Nham forest has remained untouched by loggers, a number that has remained unchanged for years.
“Phien is as fierce as a tigress. Thanks to her, the forest is doing well,” a police chief of Kon Plong Police once said.
Thach Nham forest in Kon Plong District, Kon Tum Province. Photo: Tuoi Tre
In 2012, when about to be re-assigned to another location, Phien wrote a letter to her superior demanding she stay put.
“With all the love and worries over my beauty, I am in love with Thach Nham and deeply desire to stay and protect the forest,” the letter read.
Phien said apart from her fierceness, one factor that made her commitment with Thach Nham possible was her ugliness.
“Half of my body is covered in reddish birthmarks. My husband said he chose me because I was as ugly as one could possibly get. He said he was comfortable with me being away as much as I wanted since nobody would want to lay a finger on me,” Phien said.
“I have a burning love for Thach Nham, and will devote the rest of my life to this forest if I’m allowed to. I feel lost and out-of-place in the city. Just waking up to the chirping of birds and the foggy mountains is enough to keep me happy,” Phien added.