Many people have called him “a wanderer”. The circle of professional photographers in Việt Nam have nicknamed him “a man of forest”.
Blending in: In order to get close to birds, Tăng A Pẩu must disguise himself in green colour. Courtesy Photos of Tăng A Pẩu
It’s hard to dispute the monikers: Tăng A Pẩu spends two to three days a week in forests, photographing the trees and the animals who make them their home. He has documented ecosystems from Nam Cát Tiên Forest in the southern province of Đồng Nai and Bi Dop in the Central Highlands province of Lâm Đồng, to Hòn Bà in the central province of Khánh Hòa and Cúc Phương in the northern province of Ninh Bình.
With a weather-beaten complexion and a strong voice, he is full of humorous stories.
His hobby is living in nature, filling his lungs with fresh air and satisfying his passion for taking photos.
Vivid: Vietnamese Cutia in Đà Lạt
For the last decade, he has taken photos of 500 kinds of birds throughout Việt Nam, two-thirds of the total birds in the country.
“Many people love nature, love birds and take photos of birds,” said photographer Hoàng Thế Nhiệm. “But Tăng A Pẩu is a special case of all. He has considered a ’man of forest’. On normal days, he is a businessman. His money has been spent much on travelling and taking photos of birds. Looking at his special photo collection, one can understand how much effort he has spent to obtain it.”
When asked how he fell in love with the forests and birds, Pẩu mentioned literature he studied at school like novel Truyện Đường Rừng (Tales of Forest) by writer Lan Khai and poem Nhớ Rừng (Nostalgia for Forest) by Thế Lữ, which stimulated his curiosity about the deep green wild world.
In 1975, he studied forestry at college. His first mission was trekking through forests to draw maps. The first forest he set foot in was Mã Đà Forest, in today’s southern province of Đồng Nai. Yet after he graduated, he did not return to forestry until dozens of years later, when he went in search of the old forests he used to visit and was astonished that so many of them had disappeared.
Lovely: Vietnamese Green Finch
“Taking photos of the forests is my own way to keep the beautiful memories of where I spent most of my youth,” he said.
Pẩu said the first bird he photographed was among the most beautiful rare birds in Việt Nam – the Asian Paradise Flycatcher.
He remembers most a trip to Mt Fansipan, which is the highest in Indochina. After three days trekking and searching on the mountain, the fog was so thick that he could not take any photos. He could hardly see anything further than 4m ahead.
“Searching for the Chestnut-eared Laughingthrush in Măng Đen Forest, Kon Tum Province, was also tiring,” Pẩu told Việt Nam News. “I have taken six trips in six years and could not take any photos of this kind of bird, though I stood just one step away from it, due to bushy plants.”
On a trip to Ngọc Linh Mountain in Kon Tum Province in 2015, he spent three nights on the mountain and found the Golden-winged Laughingthrush appear for only ten seconds. He was almost unable to take any photo as he had some difficulty with his camera.
“Each trip to a forest is an unforgettable memory,” he said, “Behind each photo is a story to tell.”
Jocular: Collared Laughingthrush in Đà Lạt
Pecking around: Pheasants in Nam Cát Tiên Forest
Forest friend: Chestnut-eared Laughingthrush taken in Kontum
Pẩu revealed that he likes forests’ sounds and the vividness created by all the birds and other animals, which erase his daily stress.
“I consider field trips to forests an endless joy for the soul, reducing the invisible pressure of urban life,” he said.
He has been nominated as a photographer for the crane in Southeast Asia by the International Crane Foundation and his photos have been shared among national parks and animal preservation organisations in Việt Nam.
“I consider taking photos a hobby, not a profession,” he said, “There are only few Vietnamese photographers specialising in taking photos of birds. Yet there are many of them in Thailand and Singapore. They travel around the world to hunt photos of rare birds. Some of them have asked me to guide them to forests in Việt Nam.”
Learning from birds
Pẩu said birds have special senses. If they feel our eyes are not friendly, they will fly away immediately.
“I have learnt from them innocence and the capability to adapt to the surrounding environment,” he said. “Their independence is also high. They live in certain limited areas. Whenever a strange one intrudes into someone else’s territory, he or she would receive warning.”
When he steps into forest, he chooses the simplest and most tolerant way of living.
“I wake up early to receive the first sun rays, to admire tiny drops of dew on leaves,” he said. “As very quickly, the dew will disappear and the sun shines brightly.”
Pẩu said he shared beautiful photos of nature to awaken people’s kindness and draw them close to nature.
“People said taking photos of wild birds is more expensive than playing golf,” he joked. “The photographers must spend a lot of time, energy and money to travel. I play tennis three times a week to keep fit for such trips.”
Pẩu could not hide his worries about the quick extinction of wild birds in Việt Nam.
“One of the main reasons for this problem is the dizzying pace of deforestration throughout the country,” he said. “Besides, hunting and illegal trafficking of rare birds have made the problem more serious.”
He sometimes displays photo at exhibitions as a way to speak up for the country’s disappearing natural forests.
He also plans to publish a book about beautiful forests, aiming to reach teenagers to help prepare them for a life in harmony with nature. VNS