The Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team have been battling the illegal wildlife trade for eight years - and with huge success. Experts say they are a model for other conservation initiatives.
Photo by: TRACEY SHELTON
A member of the WRRT holds up the carcass of a rare marbled cat, found in a restaurant in Koh Kong province.
ON a Thursday morning last month, workers at restaurants near Thmor Roung Waterfall in Koh Kong province relaxed in hammocks as they waited for the lunch crowd to trickle in.
Late in the morning, two vehicles containing five military police officers and two Forestry Administration (FA) officials suddenly arrived on the scene, and restaurant owners were informed that their establishments would be searched for illegal wildlife products.
The team was part of a government task force known as the Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team (WRRT). Run by the FA with support and training from the conservation NGO Wildlife Alliance, the 12-member WRRT works to stop the illegal trade that conservationists say is decimating the Kingdom's wildlife population.
A search of four restaurants recovered five kilograms of wild boar meat and the carcass of a marbled cat. Referring to the boar meat, Heng Kimchhay of the FA said its texture, as well as the lack of fat directly underneath the skin, were clues that it was not from a domestic pig.
After interviewing restaurant owners and drafting reports, the WRRT issued fines to two restaurant owners and moved on to the next location.
Since its founding in 2001, the WRRT has regularly patrolled restaurants, markets and major wildlife trade routes throughout the Kingdom.
Nick Marx of Wildlife Alliance, who advises the WRRT, said the "fantastic government initiative" has evolved "into a highly accomplished, professional and extremely hardworking team".
He added, "Their animal-handling skills have reached a level of excellence so high that animals almost never die during confiscation or transportation, despite the poor conditions they are often found in."
By April 2009, the WRRT had rescued 38,709 live animals, confiscated 5,824 kilograms of wildlife meat and apprehended 1,801 wildlife traders. Live animals are typically released back into the wild or brought to FA's Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center (PTWRC) in Takeo province. Confiscated meat is either destroyed or fed to animals at the rescue center.
David Emmett, deputy regional director for Conservation International, said many conservation groups concentrate on areas with high populations of species that are globally rare but common in Cambodia, whereas the WRRT focuses on species that are "highly valued and rare everywhere" because they are "difficult to protect". He cited as examples bears, tigers, pangolins and turtles.
"Through their links to the PTWRC, they can also ensure that confiscated high-value species have a chance to form an assurance colony - a captive breeding colony that ensures the species will not go extinct even if totally hunted out in the wild," Emmett said, adding that the eventual release of these animals into the wild would in some cases offer the only chance for their survival.
Marx pointed to progress in curtailing the wildlife trade in recent years, saying that "wildlife and body parts were on sale everywhere throughout the country" when the WRRT was formed. Big confiscations took place daily, he said, and traders and restaurants selling wildlife meat were put out of business.
Eight years later, he said, wildlife meat is no longer listed on menus and live animals are no longer openly sold in markets.
But conservationists said there is still an active underground animal trade in Cambodia.
....wildlife and body parts were on sale everywhere.
Meng Sinoeun, a military police captain on the WRRT, said traders constantly adjust their tactics.
Whereas they used to store and transport large quantities of wildlife at once, they now move smaller quantities, making transactions harder to detect. He said the animals are often transported in cars or tourist buses - citing an example in April in which the WRRT found half a tonne of snakes and turtles in a Chevrolet, and another in which the team recovered five pangolins from a tourist bus bound for Poipet.
When poverty drives trade
On the same day that the WRRT raided the Thmor Roung Waterfall restaurants, the team also visited Srey Ampel market, also in Koh Kong.
Two women were discovered trading three wild ducks, and one tried to flee approaching military police officers. Across the market, she approached Heng Kimchhay, not realising that he was also part of the team.
Heng Kimchhay quickly calmed the woman down and convinced her to cooperate. Again, the team drafted reports and confiscated the contraband, but this time the women were not fined.
"I can see how they are living. It's obvious they are poor," Heng Kimchhay said. "But we have their details on record and have warned them that if caught again they will be charged."
Marx, who is clearly proud of the team, said its job is both emotionally taxing and dangerous, in part because of the sometimes-violent reactions from traders and the animals they confiscate.
Matt Hunt, the CEO for the international organization Free the Bears, said the WRRT could be an example for other conservation groups in the region.
"Within ASEAN, Cambodia stands as a fantastic example of what can be achieved with a dedicated task force committed to tackling the illegal wildlife trade," Hunt said.
"WRRT form the final line of defence for animals which have been stolen from the wild."