SUN HEAN, a Cambodian conservation biology graduate student at the University of
Minnesota, took time out last year from his course to conduct a dangerous undercover
study of the illegal wildlife trade in Cambodia.
Posing as a Chinese merchant, Hean visited all border crossing points with Thailand
and Vietnam. He took pictures with a hidden camera and was wired with a microphone
to surreptitiously gather data.
Hean estimates about 50 tigers are killed each year in the forests of Cambodia.
"The bones go to Vietnam and the skins to Thailand. The Thais use the skin to
decorate bars and restaurants, and the bones go to Vietnam and China for use in traditional
medicines," said Hean.
Hean is no ordinary graduate student. He is the Deputy Director of Wildlife Protection
Office (WPO) under the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. His master's
degree studies were made possible by the award of a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship.
Hean has no intention of becoming an ivory-tower academic. Instead, the results of
his thesis study are already being put to practical use in the battle to save Cambodia's
Hean returned to Cambodia last week on a brief visit to finalize plans for the creation
of tiger monitoring teams that will establish what he expects to be a long-term plan
to help manage the natural resources in Cambodia.
The project proposal, titled "Community-based Monitoring and Conservation of
Tigers in Cambodia's Most Important Tiger Conservation Units", was reviewed
and accepted by a panel of internationally renowned tiger experts.
The bulk of the financing to establish Tiger Conservation Units (TCUs) in Cambodia
comes from the Exxon Save The Tigers Fund with the remainder coming from the United
States Fish and Wildlife Service. Hunter Weiler, the Project Officer for the program,
said he fully expects the project to "go operational within a month".
The project will establish three TCUs. The Cardamoms unit will be based in Koh Kong,
but will coordinate as well with provincial officials from Kampong Speu and Pursat.
The other two units will be established on the boundary between Ratanakkiri and Mondulkiri
near the Vietnam border, and in Preah Vihear.
Although the tiger population in Preah Vihear has been severely depleted by hunters,
the habitat is still intact and species like gaur, banting, and deer survive. The
hope is with proper management the tiger population there can rebound.
The first step will be to open offices in these TCUs, then recruit 25 hunters who
will be trained for their new role as "wildlife technicians". Their training
will last from June till December before patrols begin in TCU areas managed by the
Department of Forestry and Wildlife.
Weiler said: "These guys aren't just going to be wandering around. They will
be following prescribed geo-reference routes. We anticipate they will patrol in three-man
teams on eight to 32 km routes using GPS way points to identify the routes.
"It will take one to four days to walk a route. The teams will conduct two to
four route surveys each month. They will have data cards to record wildlife observation,
geographical coordinates, species, conditions, and signs of human activity like poaching.
"Regular rigorous monitoring of what is going on in the forest is lacking now.
How can you manage the forest unless you have this information?" said Weiler.
Hean said the teams will also conduct village conservation workshops to explain the
importance of preserving the tiger.