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The mystery of the missing spider sanctuary


The lifestyle editorial director was in a feeding frenzy. He said he’d read a small item about a spider sanctuary in Skuon and suggested that, as he’d read nothing else about it, surely it was a story that should be covered?

Indeed, on November 20, 2011, the intriguingly named journalist Heidi Fuller-Love did write about it. In an article tagged, “Special to the Los Angeles Times,” she wrote: “A couple of hours’ drive from Damdek, the tiny town of Skun is home to Cambodia’s largest concentration of tarantulas.

“I visited the fascinating breeding project and the edible insect exhibition at the Skun Spider Sanctuary, where I learned that arachnids are a gastronomic delicacy in Cambodia. ‘Along with lizards, scorpions and rats, they were introduced onto the menu during the famine under the Khmer Rouge regime, but now they have become so popular that there are fears they could be hunted to extinction,’ sanctuary employee Sopheap told me.”

A Khmer reporter was dispatched to the front to file a report on the sanctuary, but he reported that the sanctuary did not exist. Further investigation was undertaken that revealed that the sanctuary had unofficially existed briefly, but had been closed apparently “for about two years.”

Eventually the founder of the sanctuary, British expat Martin Leighfield of Nomads in Phnom Penh, was tracked down to set the record straight.

Firstly, about the Los Angeles Times coverage he said, “This is the second time this month that this article has been brought to my attention. The first time was by a group of researchers from London Zoo/Flora and Fauna International, who were investigating the spider trade in Cambodia.

“I have no recollection of meeting the author, and her quote is lifted from a web page (now offline), using the words of the mythical Sopheap. So much for the integrity of the LA Times!”

Leighfield said the Skuon Spider Sanctuary was developed in 2010, and due to open in September that year, featuring a display of tarantulas and other edible insects such as crickets, weaver ants, and giant water beetles.

He added, “It was started just as an exhibition, and once up and running I planned to approach conservation groups (such as Flora and Fauna International) for funding to develop a reserve. The spider trade was booming, and spiders in Skuon had been hunted almost to extinction: supplies were coming from Kompong Thom and further afield.”

He said the opening was delayed by family commitments in the UK.

“By the time I returned, we had missed the start of the high season. In the mean time, I took over another enterprise in Phnom Penh, so the spider sanctuary is on hold.

“Recently, there has been some interest from Flora and Fauna International, yourself, and also a major travel firm preparing for a cable TV feature on exotic cooking.

“So, I may look at getting it up and running for the start of the next season.”



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