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SOS Rhino : In the News : Armed Squads Aim for Poachers, Loggers in Cambodia

Armed Squads Aim for Poachers, Loggers in Cambodia

  Jennifer Hile
National Geographic Today
August 15, 2003

Cloaked in camouflage, a Cambodian ranger kneels down, sinking into the heavy brush of the rain forest. He silently raises his hand, holding up two fingers; two poachers are spotted ahead. A slight rustle indicates his fellow rangers moving into formation behind him, preparing for an ambush. They ready the unloaded machine guns slung over their shoulders.

Today's patrol is just a training exercise for the very real war against illegal loggers and poachers plundering Bokor National Park.

Piles of recently confiscated wood surround Bokor's nearby park headquarters„a modest smattering of huts on the southern border of the park. Yuthearith Chey, the park director, says it's a fraction of what's illegally hauled out of this rain forest every day.

"There are no less than 100 people, 100 criminals, inside Bokor park every day," says Chey.

Until recently, a lack of funding left Bokor„like all Cambodia's national parks„virtually unprotected, ringing with chainsaws and the sound of snapping snares. A U.S.-based group called WildAid stepped in to change that, providing funding, supplies, and training to get armed rangers into the field.

WildAid is knee deep in wildlife crisis spots around the globe: picking up the tab for programs protecting Siberian tigers in Russia; buying black rhino habitat in Swaziland; and battling the illegal shark fin trade in the Galapagos marine park. WildAid's goal in Cambodia is to help rebuild the national park system after decades of civil war.

Rampant Illegal Logging

"Cambodia is a country being reborn," explains Peter Knights, executive director and co-founder of WildAid. "Both their human and physical infrastructures were completely decimated by decades of chaos. Now they're starting from scratch. All of their laws are being rebuilt from the ground up, not just those for wildlife."

Cambodians began struggling to their feet after a UN peace agreement in 1991. The country's shattered political and legal systems left their forests vulnerable to illegal loggers and poachers from around the globe. As peace settled uneasily on Cambodia, international black market traders set their sights on the country's natural resources.

A World Bank-funded study of Cambodia's timber industry in 1997/98 found 95 percent of its lumber was cut illegally. The country was being stripped of its resources; Cambodians left with almost nothing to show for the loss. That's when international alarm bells sounded.

"When we arrived in Cambodia three years ago, we interviewed the ministries involved in park and wildlife protection to find out where they wanted help," explains Suwanna Guantlett, another co-founder of WildAid and president of the Cambodia office. "Government officials were very clear: There were a lot of studies being conducted on the problems, but there was no direct field protection."

"Basically WildAid is filling a niche there," says David Ferguson, who runs the Asia branch of the International Conservation Division at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "Cambodia doesn't have the personnel or funding to enforce their wildlife laws. So they started asking for help from the outside."

Wildlife Wars

Clearing out the forest is dangerous work. Loggers and poachers are often ex-Khmer Rouge guerrillas. Chey receives death threats at least once a month. Last summer, seven park rangers took shrapnel when a grenade was thrown from the bushes after raiding a logging camp. All seven were hospitalized.

"A lot of weapons are floating around Cambodia," observes Knights. "We are all generally anti-gun individuals at WildAid, so it's ironic we've ended up in weapons training, but there's no choice. The thing is, rangers are trained to avoid and diffuse conflict, not create it."

Beefing up protection in wilderness areas clamps down on the supply of illegal products, but that's only part of the equation. WildAid also aims to shrink demand.

They've drummed up a series of ads denouncing consumption of wildlife products, starring Asian celebrities like Jackie Chan and director Ang Lee. Their ads blanket China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, and Thailand, among others; reaching an audience of over 500 million a week.

Another prong of WildAid's Cambodia campaign is to knock out the middlemen who link the jungle to the store. A special police squad called the Wilderness Protection Mobil Unit, or MU, uses undercover informants to crack down on traders who are the conveyor belts of the illegal wildlife trade.

The MU's senior officers travel in a white pickup truck, others follow on motorcycle. They weave through the crammed streets of Phnom Penh on daily patrols, past vendors, pedestrians, honking cars, and rickshaws.

Pet Store Raids

Stashed in the dark back room of a downtown pet store, the MU discovers cages holding two slow lorus, primitive primates hunted for traditional medicine, and two crested serpent eagles, prized as glamorous pets. The animals were bound for the black market. One of the eagles is too dehydrated to lift his head off the bottom of the cage. His yellow eyes are glassy and dull, his beak hangs open.

After confiscating the animals, the MU heads for the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center outside Phnom Penh. On the way, they spot an emaciated baby gibbon hanging in a birdcage at a nearby gas station. Like the lorus, gibbons are an endangered species.

"We've rescued over 7,000 animals in just the first nine months of operation," says the MU's chief, Tauch Ratana. His unit has also turned up over a hundred different species including elephants, macaques, sunbears, leopard cats, pythons, and pangolins. He compares what's happening to a faucet turned wide open at blast speed, disastrously draining his country of its wildlife.

The pressure is growing on Cambodia to get its house in order. The country's big donors„like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and Asian Development Bank„are threatening to withhold some of Cambodia's annual $600 million in aid unless it makes more progress protecting its forests and wildlife.

Guardians of the Forest

The UN appointed Global Witness in 1999 to act as an independent monitor of forest crimes in Cambodia, a role they fulfilled until April 2003. Jon Buckrell is the head of their forestry department.

"Those donors aren't making a pro-conservation statement, it's just sound business practice," explains Buckrell. "They're investing a lot of money to spur development in Cambodia and they want to know the government is going to use their natural resources sustainably to fuel that development over the long run. We all think the wildlife there is important in its own right, but that's not the motive for the donors."

Jon also points out that local people are the ones hardest hit by the rampant, illegal destruction of their forests. "Rural Cambodians depend on the forest for subsistence living, so they are completely undermined by uncontrolled logging. And since very little of the eventual revenue actually goes into government treasury, they lose twice."

For Cambodians to keep their international funding, not to mention their natural heritage and a shot at a better future, they need to become effective guardians of their forests.