AT least six wild elephants - and possibly dozens more - have been killed by
poachers in recent months in remote areas of the Cardamom Mountains, according
to Government officials and wildlife experts.
An elephant's skull among the skeletons found along the Areng river
The world's largest land
mammals are being shot and butchered on the spot so that their tusks, trunks,
tails, lungs and bones can be sold via an intricate black-market network of
hunters, soldiers, ethnic Chinese traders and corrupt government officials,
"We've discovered three groups of elephant killers," said
Sun Hean, Deputy Director of the Wildlife Protection Office (WPO), while he
showed the Post pictures of bones which confirm the recent six
Hean is unsure of the total number of wild elephants that have
"Some people say 70, some say 50, but we aren't sure,"
Hean estimates that in the entire Cardamom region there are "not
more than 200 elephants" left in the wild.
The discovery of the slain
elephants has prompted the Government to respond urgently in an effort to stop
the killings, which have possibly endangered the overall survival of the wild
elephant population in the mountainous south-western region.
"If we are
down to 200 elephants in the Cardamoms, that's pretty close to the minimum
biologically viable population," says Hunter Weiler, Cat Action Treasury Project
Officer, referring to an earlier study of wild elephants
Weiler also notes that "given the best information available
today in the absence of detailed field surveys" there are probably no more than
400 wild elephants left in the entire country. This includes several populations
east of the Mekong in Rattanakiri and Mondulkiri and smaller numbers in Preah
Vihear and Kampong Thom.
According to Hean, the WPO first learned of the
elephant killings in one of its monthly reports submitted by WPO's Koh Kong
office of the Community-Based Tiger Conservation Project (TCOP) at the end of
TCOP, an effort supported by the Save the Tiger Fund and the
US Fish and Wildlife Service via the Cat Action Treasury, has an active team of
ex-hunters who spend two weeks a month patrolling jungle areas to monitor the
status of wildlife.
One "Wildlife Ranger" reporting from Koh Kong
Province's T'mar Beng district said he'd seen scattered groups of elephant bones
along the Areng river valley.
The WPO interviewed the ranger and sent him
back to the field with a camera and global positioning system (GPS) to determine
the exact locations of the killings. Information was also collected on who was
perpetrating the crimes and how the elephant remains were being marketed.
According to Hean, the three groups of elephant killers include: one
group of six, comprising two "unprofessional hunters", two district policemen
and two other villagers, all from T'mar Beng; a second group of 15 soldiers,
reportedly from a unit designated "E-83"; and a third group of three
WPO sent "negotiators" to contact the first
group, and says they have now agreed to stop killing elephants, with the two
leaders - Nat Vun and Kong Vuthy - having signed and thumb-printed contracts to
that effect. To encourage the leaders to mend their errant ways, the WPO offered
them jobs as TCOP rangers which includes a salary of $50 a month and training in
Hean admits that guaranteeing that further killings
of elephants won't take place is a difficult prospect.
"It's really hard
to work with people in the forest," he says. "But now we have a legal way to get
[Nat Vun and Kong Vuthy] to obey the law."
With the possible collusion of
RCAF soldiers in the elephant poaching and with related reports that a senior
T'mar Beng District official was involved in both illegal logging and the
wildlife trade, the Ministry of Defense has become involved and is investigating
According to an informed source: "There is visible evidence
of RCAF intervening to stop illegal logging in and around T'mar Beng. The
removal of a known sawmill last month being but one example."
problem remained on what to do with the roughly 300 RCAF 5th Battalion soldiers
in and around T'mar Beng, most of whom are paid only $20 a month - when they get
it - plus a 20-kilogram monthly rice allotment, and who have much time on their
hands to look for ways to secure additional income.
Wild animals and
logs, conservationists note, are easy pickings for those with almost no money
and days to kill.
Information collected by one conservationist following
the issue indicates that a fresh elephant trunk used for some kind of medicinal
soup which is alleged to enhance sexual potency sells locally for $300. Ivory
tusks are going for $60 a kilogram and bones sell for $20 a kilo.
could stop this problem easily if we showered Asian cities with Viagra," the
observer noted wryly.
With encouragement from several quarters, a meeting
was held on December 5 at WPO attended by the Ministry of Defense (MoD) Vice
Chief of the General Staff, General Chea Saran, Sun Hean and a Forest Crime
Monitoring Unit official.
As a result of the meeting, the general gave a
commitment that the 300 soldiers would be withdrawn from T'mar Beng by the end
of December, a move considered by observers as critical to ending both poaching
and illegal logging in the region.
"Yes, [MoD was] very cooperative,"
said Hean. "They agreed to take out the military [from T'mar Beng]. We have a
clear commitment from them."
A major step forward in the struggle to save
Cambodia's elephants? Possibly.
But analysts note that with increasing
pressure on the Cardamoms from new logging roads, an influx of settlers and the
difficulties in monitoring an area which covers over one million hectares, the
future is uncertain.
"[The Government's efforts are] a dramatic step
forward in stabilizing the current elephant population and maintaining it for
the long-term," says Weiler, "but the elephants [in the Cardamoms] are still