Design Meets Nature: A Wildlife Artist in HCMC

Education - Saigon/HCMC: April 27, 2017

Drawing is my lifelong hobby, and nature’s stories are my passion now. The two didn’t meet until 1999, when I first crossed the Dong Nai river on the ferry to enter Cat Tien National Park, a four-hour ride away from Ho Chi Minh City. I discovered thousands of strange creatures, mammals covered with scales, tadpoles that grow canines like vampires, and wanted to draw them all. With my first tablet and digital pen, I made a small book to be distributed to children around the park to help them understand the forest and its creatures.

With the success of the book, WWF commissioned me to paint a 200-square-metre wall at the reception with the fauna and flora of the park. I used to escape the advertising agency where I worked to come to the park to paint the leopard cat, python and other creatures at the top of the wall, perching on an acrobatic ladder. You can still see this mural at the reception, and the other artwork I did with house paint at the canteen depicting a life-size elephant, rhino, tiger and a bird wall for bird lovers.

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Threatened Species

Animals in Vietnam and Southeast Asia keep losing out to the growing illegal trafficking in wildlife, which is getting more sophisticated and dangerously efficient.

Some animals are lucky enough to be confiscated by the combined efforts of the government’s Forest Protection Department and an NGO named Wildlife At Risk, and they end up in a temporary rescue centre. Telling that story was complex and needed more than a tablet or house paint. Within 72 m2, I used an art installation, painting, graphic design and interior lighting to explain to visitors how close to extinction Vietnamese wildlife is, what is needed to save them and how one can help.

The marine environment faces similar issues. The Con Dao archipelago is an example. This paradise of pristine beaches and coral reefs is assaulted by pollution and overfishing. There is little hope of convincing grown-ups not to spoil their own habitat, but I thought young school kids were more open to conservation messages. So I combined visuals and sounds to convey the “Love Your Sea” message. Half the population of the island was drawn to the venue.

After many years of working in advertising agencies, I left to combine my drawing hobby with my passion for wildlife in the form of acrylic on canvas. For now, I’m spending every minute of the day doing what I love best.

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While I still struggle with the logistical and financial aspects of being an artist, most of my wildlife art is about hope, hope for a better environment.

Some Wild Animals You Can Find in HCMC

Tree Snake: Although it will bite (I got bitten several times while handling it) this snake is harmless to humans. I hope it finds a way to survive amid the ongoing construction activities and human aggression towards it. This snake can actually fly, or rather glide from branch to branch in the top canopy – it flattens its body, spreading its ribs to form a sort of parachute, then steers in the direction it wants to go by balancing its tail.

Great Hornbill: I used to work for an advertising agency in Saigon Center, Le Duan street. Occasionally, we would see a greater hornbill perched on the tamarind tree at our 10th floor level. Hornbills mate for life. The female cements herself inside a tree hollow using her saliva mixed with mud, leaving only a hole big enough for the tips of her beak. Then she lays her eggs and stays imprisoned until her chicks can fly. All this time, the male has to find food to feed her through the hole. If he gets hunted – people use hornbill casques for different purposes in many cultures – the whole family will die with him.

Alexandrine Parakeet: In Cat Tien National Park you can see thousands of them noisily obscuring the sky, especially during the corn harvest season. It is almost a miracle to find them flying free also in the urban setting, because of course you can also find them in cages.

Geckos: There are many different types. Some have a more serrated tail, some have fewer toes. I enjoy finding those that camouflage themselves on the dark trunks of the dipterocarpus trees in the city.

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Long-Tailed Grass Lizard: This beautiful lizard likes long, tall grasses. It has black and green stripes along its body down to the tail – a particularly long tail as the name suggests. I found them in Cat Tien National Park, and although I never thought I would find one in the city, I did just a few metres from where I live in District 2, very close to a construction site.

Banded Bullfrog: Everyone living in the countryside should be familiar with this beautiful frog, or at least its call, bellowing like a cow. The species name is pulchra, which means “beautiful”, and it truly is. Unfortunately this makes it common in the international pet trade, which in turn now makes it an invasive species in some countries. I sometimes find them in my parents’ house in District 12, climbing up to the third floor when it rains. When threatened, it can expand itself and secrete a gluey toxic substance for defence.

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