Jeremy Phan poses with a gibbon at the Endangered Primate Rescue Center in Vietnam.
Photographer: Sebastian Boge
Jeremy Phan and Nancy Stevens observe habitat destruction in the jungles of Uganda.
Photographer: Bess Ferguson
A mother Cat Ba langur cares for her offspring at the Endangered Primate Rescue Center in Vietnam.
Photographer: Jeremy Phan
Apr 13, 2011
By Monica Chapman
Graduate student Jeremy Phan's first encounter with Ohio University was half a world away in the jungles of Uganda.
Phan was indulging his passion for primates during a three-week study abroad through Michigan State University. Nancy Stevens, an assistant professor in Ohio University's Department of Biomedical Sciences, was among his instructors.
Over the years, their mutual passion for endangered primates paved the way for an enduring mentorship and unique educational opportunities, including Phan's recent internship with the Endangered Primate Rescue Center in Vietnam.
The experience inspired Phan to pursue a graduate degree in environmental studies at Ohio University, where Stevens now serves as his advisor.
It was also Stevens' encouragement that led Phan to refocus his career goals: from his childhood dream of being a zookeeper to his current dream of using ecotourism to save endangered species from extinction.
Ecotourism has become the central focus of Phan's research in OHIO's Master of Science in Environmental Studies (MSES) program. This summer, he will return to Vietnam to research the benefits of ecotourism for the Cat Ba langur, the most critically endangered primate in the world.
Before he hops off to his next adventure, Phan took time to discuss his experiences and environmental concerns with Compass.
How did your experiences in Uganda and Vietnam compare?
Uganda was my first third world country experience, and the jungles had a high biodiversity of animals. So I would walk into the forest and see monkeys right above my head. To me that was astounding. I was so excited. After that, all I wanted to do was be in the field and get dirty and covered in mud. It was a blast.
Then I went to Vietnam and it was completely different. You walk into the forest and you can't find an animal. But that's because everything's been hunted out.
What was day-to-day work for you in Vietnam?
We'd do chores around the center, everything from feeding the animals, cleaning animal enclosures, using bamboo ladders to clean off rooftops, cutting bamboo, cutting the grass. And cutting the grass is using a machete and swinging it back and forth. (Never complain about cutting the lawn in America, because I tell you what, it is difficult! It is difficult!)… Some days, it was around 95 degrees, 100 percent humidity. And we were working out there covered in mosquitoes and leaches.
What drives you to do this type of work?
Working with people and helping them understand their impact and changing their past historical ideologies on what animals can bring to them. My biggest hope is that by showing them that ecotourism can bring in enough money, they will stop poaching for these animals.
What is ecotourism?
Ecotourism means people pay big bucks to go into the forest and see species that they can't see otherwise. It is also about bringing money to the local community and showing them there is a way to profit from these animals and the ecosystem that doesn't involve destroying it. In Uganda, I spent $500 to spend an hour with the mountain gorillas, and they're booked a year in advance. That's a perfect example of how ecotourism can work.
Why are you focusing your research on the Cat Ba langur?
The Cat Ba langur is the most critically endangered primate in the world. There are only around 70 of them left on earth. This species of monkeys are only found on Cat Ba Island, and there are so few left because of human influence, habitat destruction, poaching, that kind of stuff.
Have you seen a Cat Ba langur?
When I went there and asked if I could see these monkeys, they told me no, you won't be able to see them because there are so few numbers. I was lucky enough to be on a kayak going around the island and I saw them. I was with other tourists and no one around me understood. They were like, "Ooo! Monkeys!" I was like, "You don't get it! These are so endangered!"
What can people do to help out?
They can do the basic things that the Green Movement promotes. Reduce, reuse, recycle. Try to buy local products so that there's not outsourcing. Pay attention to the ingredients in your products. I'm just as guilty as anyone else in a lot of these areas, but it's just becoming conscious of what you're buying.
How has OHIO's MSES program enhanced your career path?
I always thought in terms of animals. That's been my passion since I can remember. Coming here to the Environmental Studies program, I've learned a lot more about people's influence on local environments, like the coal mining around Southeast Ohio. I can pull that into what I'm studying and merge that all together.