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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Bear smuggler busted at Phnom Penh airport

Bear smuggler busted at Phnom Penh airport

bear.jpg
bear.jpg

A baby bear, rescued from traffickers, seems to be enjoying a distinctly non-forest environment, unaware that it has perhaps been spared from a future as a living bile factory.

On New Year's Day, government authorities arrested an alleged RCAF soldier as he

left Phnom Penh International Airport at Pochentong with a cardboard box he collected

from the baggage carousel containing some unusual contraband - a baby Malaysian sun

bear.

According to environmental NGO WildAid, the illegally trafficked bear cub is the

eighth confiscated by Cambodia's Wildlife Rapid Response Team (WRRT) in the past

ten weeks. Nick Marx, an animal husbandry specialist with WildAid, told the Post

the eight bear cubs probably represent "only the tip of the iceberg" of

those being smuggled. Marx said it is breeding season for bears now, which may explain

the increase in bear cub confiscations.

Officials for the San Francisco-based NGO WildAid said the WRRT received information

from an informant that an RCAF district commander in Ratanakkiri had obtained the

cub. WRRT began a surveillance of a house and, on December 31, saw the bear moved

to a wildlife trader's house. The following day, the cub was boarded in a cardboard

box and sent unaccompanied on a plane from Banlung to Phnom Penh.

The WRRT contacted members of their unit in Phnom Penh and undercover agents waited

inside Ponchentong airport for someone to pick up the bear. When the man collected

the box from the baggage carousel he was followed by plain-clothed WRRT officers

who arrested him outside the airport grounds.

During the course of a long interrogation by the Forest Administration, the man admitted

he was a soldier and said he had bought the bear for US$500. Ultimately, the soldier

was freed, as he could not legally be held longer than two days.

According to Marx, getting prosecutions for wildlife crime in Cambodia is difficult.

"Our hope is that this event will go through the courts and that the soldier

will either be fined or, depending on the gravity, sent to prison," Marx told

the Post.

According to Article 90 of the Forestry Law, the offender, if proven to be a soldier,

would be subject to both criminal and military administrative proceedings if found

guilty.

The WRRT was established in 2001 as an elite unit assigned to eradicate Cambodia's

illegal wildlife trade. The group is a specially trained mobile unit made up of personnel

from the Department of Forestry and Wildlife, the Royal Gendarmerie, and officials

from WildAid. Until recently, the WRRT was known as the Wilderness Protection Mobile

Unit.

Officials said that in its initial 18 months of operation the WRRT apprehended 239

wildlife traders, rescued more than 10,000 wild animals and confiscated 1.3 tons

of fresh meat and two tons of dried wildlife parts.

Because Cambodia is home to some of the world's most sought after species, it has

become a major location for the wildlife trade.

The penalties for wildlife crimes in Cambodia are not heavy, Marx said, but wildlife

groups are pushing for tougher laws and stricter enforcement. He says there have

not been many prosecutions for wildlife crimes, but hopes that this case could serve

as a deterrent to others.

"There need to be examples," he said. "People need to know that they

are breaking the law. If they don't know, they won't stop."

The baby bear - now named Dimanche, or "Sunday" in French - was turned

over by the authorities to Free the Bears, an Australian NGO responsible for looking

after the 66 bears living in Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center. Free the Bears will

feed and house Dimanche and four other sun bear cubs until they are big enough to

be introduced to an enclosure at Phnom Tamao. Three other cubs, including an Asiatic

black bear, were recently transferred.

Malaysian sun bears are indigenous to Southeast Asia and are the smallest species

of bear; an adult male averages 70kg. According to Marx, they are not endangered,

but there is no estimate of their population. They have a broad range and are not

particularly numerous anywhere.

Had the cubs not been confiscated, they probably would have been sold as pets or,

more likely, to bear farms in neighboring countries. There, they would have been

milked for their bile, a traditional medicine. Some might even have ended up on the

menu at a restaurant.

Although the cubs are lucky to have escaped such a fate, wildlife experts say the

estrangement from their natural habitat is extremely unfortunate. Yet, Marx says,

Dimanche and the other cubs will help highlight the cruelties of the illegal wildlife

trade and help those trying to bring about its end.

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