Already being hunted to the edge of extinction by poachers, Cambodia's diverse
wildlife is under threat from yet another quarter - the increasing number of
restaurants opening across the country that specialize in endangered wildlife
Pangolin paw adds pork-like flavour to this restaurant offering.
In Phnom Penh alone, at least a dozen such restaurants along
Monivong Boulevard and across the Japanese bridge on Route 6 are contributing to
what conservationists say is the systematic destruction of Cambodia's rich fauna
by exotic cuisine aficionados.
The trend is reportedly spreading to
Battambang, Siem Reap and Svay Rieng.
According to wildlife experts,
peace and stability in the country, coupled with an increase in the spending
power of the Cambodian elite has given rise to a culture of lavish spending on
restaurant dining, increasing the demand for exotic wildlife
"Unlike local delicacies like the whole fried black spiders
popular in Kompong Svay district (in Kompong Thom) and locusts, insects and
sparrows elsewhere that entered the poor Cambodians' food plates due to lack of
'normal' food during the Khmer Rouge years, wild game cuisine is being
patronized by the rich who associate it with... status and power," explained Kit
Whitney of Save Cambodian Wildlife (SCW).
Joe Walston, biodiversity expert at the Phnom Penh office of the Wildlife
Conservation Society (WCS) says the demand is also being fueled by tourists from
countries like China, Taiwan and Korea where such wild animals are considered
delicacies or are perceived to have health-giving properties.
An asiatic black bear - endangered by human carnivors.
endangered the animal, [the] more attractive it becomes [for eating] by the rich
and powerful due to the rarity factor," Walston said. "Since most of these
restaurants and their patrons are well-connected, the business of eating
wildlife goes unchecked."
An indication of the easy availability of
endangered wildlife dishes can be gauged by a visit to the VIP Tsui Hang Village
Sea Food Restaurant on Monivong Boulevard. Despite its name, seafood sits a
distant second on the menu behind a long list of endangered delicacies including
pangolin, snake and iguana.
The speedy intervention of two restaurant
security guards during an attempt by the Post to photograph a dish of
freshly-cooked pangolin suggests that the restaurant is aware that its menu is a
testament to violations of the Decree No 35 on Forestry, which forbids the
hunting, sale or transport of any wild animals.
But the Tsui Hang Village
restaurant is not an isolated case. Several other restaurants along Route One
specialize exclusively in flying fox, while at least five others across the
Japanese bridge serve anything from fruit bats to turtles.
The list of
animals that are making it to the dining tables of such restaurants reads like a
veritable glossary of Cambodian wildlife that's either endangered or vulnerable
The increasing number of restaurants serving wildlife,
experts say, is also indicative of continuing cross-border smuggling in wild
animal products. The amount of wild animals off-loaded at specialty restaurants
is apparently just a fraction of larger consignments bound for markets in
Thailand and Vietnam.
Government officials admit that animals like
monitor lizard, python, bear (its paws used by the restaurants for making soup
and the gall bladder exported for traditional Chinese medicine) and a wide range
of known and unknown bird species are being hunted down to be served to the
lovers of exotic meat. Of these, pangolin and monitor lizard are classed as
"vulnerable" while sun bear, snakes and turtles are considered "endangered.
For several other popular dining table species, there have been no
detailed surveys to ascertain their actual numbers in the wild.
some animals are not endangered or vulnerable, they could be crucial in
maintaining the food chain and thereby protecting a region's biodiversity," said
Lay Khim, Chief of the Protected Areas Office (PAO) of the Ministry of
Environment. " Urgent measures are, therefore, necessary to regulate if not
completely ban their trade for food purposes."
Sun Hean, Deputy Director
in the Wildlife Protection Office of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and
Fisheries (MAFF), admits the practice of hunting and selling wildlife as exotic
restaurant entrees is rampant in various other provinces as well but says the
government faces problems in stemming the trade.
A regular supply of
pangolin is sourced by restaurateurs from north-eastern Cambodia, while turtles
are caught from the Mekong basin and barking deer from Kompong Speu.
Hunting methods vary from primitive for small animals to the use of
explosives for larger creatures. A WWF team recently seized three crude mines
from Kratie national park, one of which was used to kill a large sun bear, its
carcass laid on another mine to attract a large predator.
"In some cases,
the prime target is big game like tigers. But at the end of the day, hunters
bring back whatever they can lay their hands on," said Seng Teak, Programme
Co-ordinator of the WWF's Conservation Programme in Cambodia that is
collaborating with the government to protect Cambodia's flora and
According to Teak, the wildlife trading system works through a
network of middlemen who visit the restaurants regularly to ascertain the demand
and then award additional contracts to professional hunters to supply their
"If the consignment is large, it is either hidden underneath common goods
legally being transported on a truck and sometimes split into several smaller
consignments for moto-dupes to deliver to restaurants," Teak said.
recent sting operation, the MAFF seized bags of pangolins on their way to Phnom
Penh restaurant tables.
Wildlife experts fear such unchecked poaching of
wild animals for food, coupled with the threat they already face from
international traders for their bones, skin, teeth and other products, could
wipe out much of Cambodian wildlife within a decade.
(See "New wildlife
unit", page 14)