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The lowtech tools of an ugly trade

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Srepok Wildlife Sanctuary chief Pen Pheaktra (second right) demonstrates use of traps to the environment ministry’s Neth Pheaktra. YOUSOS APDOULRASHIM

The lowtech tools of an ugly trade

Ropes, wires and cables are sold everywhere at a very low price and these materials are used to make snares and traps to hunt wild animals.

To those animals, these simple lengths of rope or cable are effectively weapons of mass destruction because they cause massive and indiscriminate death when deployed over a wide area.

There are three lethal wildlife snare types and two lethal wildlife trap types in common use in Cambodia.

A snare is defined as nooses made of twisted cable, metal wire or rope with one end anchored to the ground or tied to a plant or pole.

The three snare types are the nylon rope or cow rope snares, metal wire snares and cable snares. If an animal steps into the loop of a snare it will find itself tethered in place or even hanging upside in the air from a tree branch.

The two common trap types are the foothold trap and the electrified trap. The foothold trap is a set of jaws on a spring that clamp together on the animal’s foot. Electrified traps are exactly what they sound like – metal constructs like cages, fences or often simply trip wires – that are hooked into a power supply which electrocutes the animal when turned on.

“Snares and lethal wildlife traps are silent killers and they trap creatures quietly. The materials are low in price and easy to buy and install. They are brutally effective poaching methods,” says Seng Teak, Country Director of WWF-Cambodia.

“Lethal and electrified traps can kill humans as well as animals but they are so effective at killing animals that they strip the natural habitat of them,” he says during a meeting in Mondulkiri.

Teak says that in the 1950s, Cambodia was seen by scientists and researchers as a paradise for wild animals in Asia and it was thought by some to have the second largest animal population in the world after Africa.

“That claim was evidently made in a document about banteng, wild ox, wild buffalo and gaur in Cambodia by an American researcher in 1951,” says Teak, who has served as country director since 2017.

Teak says that his organisation World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-Cambodia) recently issued a report about the snaring and trapping crisis in Southeast Asia.

He says their report indicates that more than 12.3 million traps and snares may be threatening wild animals in the region on any given day.

“Across eleven protected nature reserve areas in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia the total number of snares and traps confiscated was over 370,000 in the nine years between 2010 and 2019,” says Teak.

“In Cambodia, we don’t know how many of them are in our protected areas exactly,” according to Ministry of Environment secretary of state and spokesman Neth Pheaktra.

“But we can say that about 50,000 snares are removed by our rangers from the nature reserves per year,” says Pheaktra.

He says wildlife cameras have also shown that many animals are injured by snares and traps even when they manage to escape them and some have been seen walking with snares still looped around their legs.

Men Theoun, a forest ranger in Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary for more than 10 years now, says that traps are commonly deployed everywhere in the protected areas.

“In the past hunts were limited to guns, and only marketable animals were killed. But today snares and traps indiscriminately capture all forms of animals,” says Theoun, who changed his ways over 10 years ago, transforming from a deadly hunter into a dedicated ranger who has won awards recognising his outstanding work.

Public empathy was stirred recently by a photo depicting a banteng with tears in its eyes that had been trapped for several days in Sorng Rukhavorn Wildlife Sanctuary before it was discovered and officials arrived and intervened to free it.

Unfortunately, the poor creature died not long after being freed due to severe injuries it had suffered over the 10 day ordeal the poachers and their snares had put it through.

“It died from a number of causes – he had no food to eat or water to drink. It tried to make its way out of the trap and though we tried our best to rescue him, he was too far gone to survive in the end,” Pheaktra says sombrely.

Pheaktra says the most dangerous poaching method is the electrified trap. The metal wire connected to the battery can be a hundred meters long.

He explains that with electric traps the poachers hide themselves and wait for the right moment to turn the power on and the electricity can cause many animals to faint or even kill them outright.

Rangers have to be especially careful around electrified traps because they can often easily kill humans, too.

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Poacher’s brutal tools: rope snare; wire snare; cable snare; foothold trap; electric trap. YOUSOS APDOULRASHIM

Pheaktra says that in the last 10 years the number of banteng – which was already considered a rare species – has plummeted dramatically with losses of up to 72 per cent of the entire population in Cambodia.

Pheaktra mentions that there are only approximately 856 banteng left now between both of the Cambodian wildlife sanctuaries which they are found in.

“This sharp decline in population numbers for wild species is a global trend right now, sadly. It is due mainly to a loss of natural habitat and also human activities that disrupt the little amount of designated habitat wild animals have left in the world, such as snares and traps,” Pheaktra says.

The efforts to curb wildlife destruction made by the Ministry of Environment’s rangers, partnered NGOs and local communities serving as animal protectors have met with some successes with gains in the population size of yellow-cheeked gibbons, black-shanked doucs, peacocks and a few other species.

But more must be done, Pheaktra says, particularly more efforts to end the use of snares and traps.

“Research shows that there were enormous numbers of wild animals present prior to 2010 when there were less snares and traps. We see the wildlife populations dropping sharply and the number of traps rising rapidly at the same time so it’s clearly a causative factor,” Pheaktra says.

“For just Mondulkiri in the last decade alone almost 10,000 traps were removed from the protected areas,” he says, shaking his head in disgust.

Teak also recognises the responsibility his organisation has to do everything they can to assist the ranger’s campaign to prevent the forest from being emptied of wildlife.

“The rangers do their best when they are on duty. Between 2013 and 2019, they collected more than 20,000 traps and more than 5,000 of those were electrified traps. The rangers seized 4,772 traps and freed 109 living wild animals while arresting 42 people in 2020.”

Srepok Wildlife Sanctuary (SWS) is a protected area of 372,971ha that has recently seen the formation of a law enforcement task force to crack down on illegal wildlife trafficking.

“To put a stop to illegal wild animal trafficking, we created a task force to research the routes traffickers use for wildlife transportation and we then used that information to find the markets and restaurants they sell to.

“We freed more than 100 animals and put them all back into their natural habitats in 2020,” says Pen Pheaktra, chief of SWS.

The Ministry of Environment deploys more than 1,200 rangers over 7.3 million hectares of protected area, which amounts to a stunning 41 per cent of all land in Cambodia.

The protected land is spread across 68 areas including wildlife sanctuaries, national parks, mixed-use areas and areas for sustainable development.

In Srepok Wildlife Sanctuary and Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary there are 51 rangers, 46 animal protectors and 588 community rangers on a total of nearly 6,000sq km in Mondulkiri.

Teak explained that when rangers receive a report of a living animal found caught in a trap they have to proceed cautiously and make sure they have the right personnel and equipment on hand.

“It can be very risky to release trapped animals because they are scared and in pain. You must have training to do it because large animals will fight you to protect themselves even if you are trying to help, they don’t know that,” Teak explains.

Normally the rescue team requires use of an anaesthetic or sedative on animals before freeing them from the trap. This also allows them to administer further medical care or transport the animal back to a centre to let it regain strength before freeing it.

Pheaktra is clearly worried about the ongoing destruction of wildlife and natural habitat in Cambodia and across the world and he makes an impassioned appeal to all Cambodians to stop consuming bushmeat and to stop using traditional remedies made from wild animals before it’s too late.

“I call on all the authorities in Stung Treng, Ratanakkiri, Kratie and Mondulkiri to work together to stop poaching, wildlife trafficking and the sale of illegal meats in their areas now and I call on Khmer citizens to protect our nation’s natural heritage,” Pheaktra says with a renewed hope that this will be the year that all Cambodians will make a stand and join in solidarity as a community against the illegal wildlife trade.

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