Wearing a pair of flip-flops and knee-length loose pants, Chea Voeurn uses a hoe to lift a tiny leech from a small shallow lake surrounded by dry, cracking land.
The wriggling creatures were once abundant in Potireak Lake during the rainy season (May to October). However, this year Tamao Village in Prey Veng Province, which is known for breeding leeches to use for medical purposes, has been finding times tough due to the lack of rainfall in Baphnom District, about 78km east of Phnom Penh.
According to the 45-year-old leech catcher, in the past the lake was very deep and would hold water throughout the year. In the past the lakeside was full of water plants where the bloodsucking creatures live.
But the plants were harvested for other uses, so the lake now has less leeches.
Voeurn is worried climate change will permanently hurt his income. At the moment he’s not earning at all.
“The leeches can survive in the soil and then move to the lake when the rainfall fills it, but this year I might have to wait until November or December when the temperature is less warm and there is cool breeze,” he says.
Leeches, which are one of the scary creepy crawlies that make local people dread adventures in remote areas, have been historically used in medicine to remove blood for detox or disinfection in ancient India and Greece, before the practice spread to Europe and North America.
They are still used in modern medicine, particularly in aesthetic surgery as well as treating osteoarthritis. The Chinese market is particularly big.
Another leech catcher, Oum Mao, said there are usually two catching seasons a year, first during the rainy season and the second at the end of the year.
The 50-year-old farmer said that in his village there are about 10 families who catch leeches.
Oum Mao earns extra income from selling leeches on top of farming and he complained that the wholesale price has dropped from $3.75/kg to $2.25/kg while the amount caught is gradually decreasing.
“In the past, each catcher could sell at least 10kg per day to the wholesaler, but the last catch, each of us could bring only 3kg to 4kg per day.”
Despite the numbers of the bloodsucking creatures decreasing Mao and Voeurn think their source of income will not end because they believe they will multiply very quickly if conditions improve.
To contact the reporter on this story: Sou Vuthy at [email protected]