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‘Tiger’ falls prey to linguistics

Ngem Ngen, the victim of a bear attack, sits with locals in Pursat province’s Kravanh district
Ngem Ngen, the victim of a bear attack, sits with locals in Pursat province’s Kravanh district yesterday after receiving medical treatment for his injuries. Vireak Mai

‘Tiger’ falls prey to linguistics

Tigers and black bears look nothing alike, but their identical names in some Khmer dialects left some thinking that one of Cambodia’s most endangered species may be attacking people in the Cardamom Mountains.

Sitting outside his Santre commune home in Pursat province’s Kravanh district, with bandages on his head, arms and legs, Ngem Ngen, 51, yesterday said he told police when receiving medical treatment at a clinic on Sunday that a bear had attacked him. But many took his report as a tiger attack.

The Khmer word for bear is kla khmom and tiger is kla thom. But in Ngen’s dialect, a large bear – he estimated it at 200 kilograms – is referred to as a kla thom, he said.

The confusion was quickly sorted out when he pointed to a picture of a black bear yesterday provided by Phan Channa, a project officer for NGO Fauna and Flora International, who had arrived in the province to investigate the alleged first tiger sighting in years.

“Black bears are normally aggressive bears,” Channa said. The word “aggressive” only begins to describe Ngen’s encounter with the bear, a relatively rare animal in the area.

Ngem Ngen looks at a book containing a photo of a bear in Pursat’s Kravanh district
Ngem Ngen looks at a book containing a photo of a bear in Pursat’s Kravanh district yesterday. Vireak Mai

While looking for food in the rain, Ngen said, the bear ran at him, biting his legs and clawing at his head with its massive paws.

Shouting to his nephew for help, he hit the predator in the face with a machete, scaring it off long enough for him to climb a tree and for his nephew to scare it away with loud noise and his own machete.

When Ngen climbed down from the tree, the bear returned from its retreat and made one more attempt. It ran and jumped at Ngen, he said, but Ngen ducked under the beast and ran away.

In the end, Ngen said, the bear made off with only his pants.

The confrontation in the Cardamoms is the third known bear attack in Cambodia, Channa said. One of the three attacks involved his Flaura & Fauna team, when a sun bear tried unsuccessfully to run at the group from across a pond.

While black bears are more prevalent than tigers in Cambodia, the species is still considered threatened.

The last image of a tiger in Cambodia was captured in 2007 by a hidden camera in Mondulkiri province. The last physical evidence of tigers in that area dates to 2010.

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