At dawn, Men Theoun packs his supplies – rice, drinking water, a hammock, a rain tent, a plate, bowl and a pot – and carries them on his back as he walks into the forest once again.
Theoun grew up deep inside territory controlled by the Khmer Rouge and he learned how to use a gun at a very young age and also how to survive alone in the forest.
Years ago he would head into the forest on hunting expeditions in order to obtain animal parts such as horns, ivory and leather to sell to Vietnamese vendors.
Theoun, now 41, said that “normally I would manage to get one or two pairs of banteng and wild ox horns from a trip and I’d get paid between 30,000 and 40,000 riel [$7.50 and $10] for them.”
Today, Theoun is a forest ranger working for the government and when he goes hiking in the forest it is to fulfil his duty to protect the natural resources at Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary.
“The local people understood that I was an experienced hunter and that I knew my way around the forest, so they recommended that I be hired as a forest ranger,” he says.
Theoun has now worked for the Ministry of Environment as a ranger for well over 10 years – an even longer period than he spent in his former career as a hunter.
The main duties of the rangers are to guard against hunting, electrified traps, snaring, logging and foraging for wild orchids as well as generally preventing anyone from illegally entering the core protected areas.
He blames the use of snares and electrified traps chiefly for emptying the forests of wild animals.
Theoun says that back when he was a hunter, aside from a small market for animal horns, there were few people hunting. And if they were hunting for food then one animal might feed their family for two weeks.
Today, however, Theoun says that wild animal meats are sold at the markets and are potentially being consumed by larger numbers of people, most of whom who aren’t hunters themselves.
“I can see with my own eyes that the wild animal population is far different from what it was previously. Two decades ago if I walked few kilometres during the day I would see herds of animals, up to 20 or 30 at a time. But now I rarely see them in groups larger than maybe five or seven,” he says.
Though the government rangers have experience and expertise with patrolling the forest, apprehending criminals and protecting natural resources, they will need to be trained further according to the ministry.
“Rangers need training in new technology. They should learn new techniques and increase their knowledge in order to strengthen their capacity to protect the forest,” said Neth Pheaktra, secretary of state and spokesperson for the ministry.
Pheaktra spoke in front of rangers from Srepok Wildlife Sanctuary and Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary in Mondulkiri on January 17 in a ceremony that awarded Theoun and several other top rangers with certificates from the ministry and WWF-Cambodia to recognise their conservation achievements.
Theoun says that when he was a young child growing up in one of the Khmer Rouge’s last remaining strongholds, the forest was just a playground to him and his friends and guns were so common they treated them like toys.
At the age of ten, Theoun would sometimes run and hide to escape from the fighting. He used the dirt as his bed, grass as his pillow and the sky as a blanket.
“Sometimes I had to run from gunfire and I’d get lost in the forest for a week. I got used to living in the forest and shooting my gun,” he recalls.
At some point in the years after the Khmer Rouge finally gave up in late 1990 and many of its soldiers were absorbed into the ranks of the regular military, Theoun became a young adult and started his career as a hunter.
“I started hunting near the Phnom Prich border in Kratie on up to the border between Cambodia and Vietnam. At that time control over guns was still very poor and everybody out there carried one. A gun was just like a slingshot,” Theoun says.
Back then there were an abundance of wild animals, Theoun says, such as banteng, sambar and Eld’s deer as well as elephants and tigers.
Theoun says that as a hunter he would only shoot animals that were large enough for their parts to yield a good price at the market.
After he gunned the animals down he would strip them of those valuable parts, such as horns, and then usually just leave their bodies there to rot.
Sometimes Theoun hunted with a friend but mostly he went out on his own. He would set up his supplies so that he’d be able to stay in the jungle for several days and he could also eat some of the meat from animals that he killed, though most of it was tossed aside.
“I did not have a motorbike to travel or a truck to transport large animals. Going on foot in the jungle is tiring and you need to travel light and so I carried the horns on my back and always left a huge amount of wasted meat there,” said Theoun.
Theoun is still trekking through the same forests more than two decades later but as a ranger his activities there and how he feels about them couldn’t be more different than what he experienced as a hunter.
Generally, the rangers spend five days a week patrolling the forest and then get two days off. If they are on a special mission, they might extend their stay up to 10 days.
“The two lives I’ve lived in the forest are very different from each other. When I was hunting, I was out there alone but when I patrol as a ranger I am with a team that does everything together” says Theoun.
Being out in the forest with a team is a big advantage, says Theoun. When he was out hunting alone he had many encounters with danger over the years.
“When I closed my eyes, my gun also slept. So I could not depend on it for protection all of the time. Some nights I would sleep up in a tree. Once an elephant came and rubbed its body up against the tree and I almost fell from the branches.
“I managed to hold on but my gun dropped to the ground. Luckily it went off and that scared it away,” Theoun says.
Theoun warns, however, that even when you are with a team of experienced rangers the forest can sometimes be a dangerous place.
“We’ve gotten into gun fights with criminals out there. They see we are rangers and they don’t care – they point their guns and shoot directly at us. A few years ago one of our rangers was shot but luckily he survived,” Theoun says.
“We’ve caught criminals with guns in their hands and dead animals at their feet. I’m glad I was never arrested but if I had been maybe I would have chosen a different life sooner.
“When I think back to what I did I feel angry with myself and I always ask hunters we catch why they keep hunting,” Theoun says.
Theoun says that some of the criminals they’ve encountered have been his neighbours but that doesn’t stop him from enforcing the law.
“I work with a group of rangers and also people from WWF-Cambodia, so it isn’t just one person who decides and we always follow the law no matter who it is,” Theoun says.
Theoun often catches snare trappers these days and he is dismayed when he sees some of the same faces over time.
“They get sent to court and then a few days later they are home and they return to the forest again and again. We’ve arrested some groups more than once now and most of them are from Kratie and Kampong Chhnang provinces,” he complains.
Theoun says that his change of heart came about gradually as he grew older and began to realise that if the situation in Cambodia didn’t change the forests he’d spent so many years in would all be gone along with the animals that live in them.
Pointing to the Kingdom’s flag and the ministry’s logo on his uniform with pride, Theoun tells The Post that “I know some animal parts can fetch high prices today, but being rich doesn’t mean anything to me.
“I decided to change my career from hunting wild animals to protecting them for a salary of just 80,000 riel and I don’t regret it for a moment,” he says.