Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Exotic tastes fuel wildlife extinction

Exotic tastes fuel wildlife extinction

Exotic tastes fuel wildlife extinction

Already being hunted to the edge of extinction by poachers, Cambodia's diverse

wildlife is under threat from yet another quarter - the increasing number of

restaurants opening across the country that specialize in endangered wildlife

dishes.

Pangolin paw adds pork-like flavour to this restaurant offering.

In Phnom Penh alone, at least a dozen such restaurants along

Monivong Boulevard and across the Japanese bridge on Route 6 are contributing to

what conservationists say is the systematic destruction of Cambodia's rich fauna

by exotic cuisine aficionados.

The trend is reportedly spreading to

Battambang, Siem Reap and Svay Rieng.

According to wildlife experts,

peace and stability in the country, coupled with an increase in the spending

power of the Cambodian elite has given rise to a culture of lavish spending on

restaurant dining, increasing the demand for exotic wildlife

cuisine.

"Unlike local delicacies like the whole fried black spiders

popular in Kompong Svay district (in Kompong Thom) and locusts, insects and

sparrows elsewhere that entered the poor Cambodians' food plates due to lack of

'normal' food during the Khmer Rouge years, wild game cuisine is being

patronized by the rich who associate it with... status and power," explained Kit

Whitney of Save Cambodian Wildlife (SCW).

 

Joe Walston, biodiversity expert at the Phnom Penh office of the Wildlife

Conservation Society (WCS) says the demand is also being fueled by tourists from

countries like China, Taiwan and Korea where such wild animals are considered

delicacies or are perceived to have health-giving properties.

An asiatic black bear - endangered by human carnivors.

"[The] more

endangered the animal, [the] more attractive it becomes [for eating] by the rich

and powerful due to the rarity factor," Walston said. "Since most of these

restaurants and their patrons are well-connected, the business of eating

wildlife goes unchecked."

An indication of the easy availability of

endangered wildlife dishes can be gauged by a visit to the VIP Tsui Hang Village

Sea Food Restaurant on Monivong Boulevard. Despite its name, seafood sits a

distant second on the menu behind a long list of endangered delicacies including

pangolin, snake and iguana.

The speedy intervention of two restaurant

security guards during an attempt by the Post to photograph a dish of

freshly-cooked pangolin suggests that the restaurant is aware that its menu is a

testament to violations of the Decree No 35 on Forestry, which forbids the

hunting, sale or transport of any wild animals.

But the Tsui Hang Village

restaurant is not an isolated case. Several other restaurants along Route One

specialize exclusively in flying fox, while at least five others across the

Japanese bridge serve anything from fruit bats to turtles.

The list of

animals that are making it to the dining tables of such restaurants reads like a

veritable glossary of Cambodian wildlife that's either endangered or vulnerable

to extinction.

The increasing number of restaurants serving wildlife,

experts say, is also indicative of continuing cross-border smuggling in wild

animal products. The amount of wild animals off-loaded at specialty restaurants

is apparently just a fraction of larger consignments bound for markets in

Thailand and Vietnam.

Government officials admit that animals like

monitor lizard, python, bear (its paws used by the restaurants for making soup

and the gall bladder exported for traditional Chinese medicine) and a wide range

of known and unknown bird species are being hunted down to be served to the

lovers of exotic meat. Of these, pangolin and monitor lizard are classed as

"vulnerable" while sun bear, snakes and turtles are considered "endangered.

"

For several other popular dining table species, there have been no

detailed surveys to ascertain their actual numbers in the wild.

"Even if

some animals are not endangered or vulnerable, they could be crucial in

maintaining the food chain and thereby protecting a region's biodiversity," said

Lay Khim, Chief of the Protected Areas Office (PAO) of the Ministry of

Environment. " Urgent measures are, therefore, necessary to regulate if not

completely ban their trade for food purposes."

Sun Hean, Deputy Director

in the Wildlife Protection Office of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and

Fisheries (MAFF), admits the practice of hunting and selling wildlife as exotic

restaurant entrees is rampant in various other provinces as well but says the

government faces problems in stemming the trade.

A regular supply of

pangolin is sourced by restaurateurs from north-eastern Cambodia, while turtles

are caught from the Mekong basin and barking deer from Kompong Speu.

Hunting methods vary from primitive for small animals to the use of

explosives for larger creatures. A WWF team recently seized three crude mines

from Kratie national park, one of which was used to kill a large sun bear, its

carcass laid on another mine to attract a large predator.

"In some cases,

the prime target is big game like tigers. But at the end of the day, hunters

bring back whatever they can lay their hands on," said Seng Teak, Programme

Co-ordinator of the WWF's Conservation Programme in Cambodia that is

collaborating with the government to protect Cambodia's flora and

fauna.

According to Teak, the wildlife trading system works through a

network of middlemen who visit the restaurants regularly to ascertain the demand

and then award additional contracts to professional hunters to supply their

export market.

 

"If the consignment is large, it is either hidden underneath common goods

legally being transported on a truck and sometimes split into several smaller

consignments for moto-dupes to deliver to restaurants," Teak said.

In a

recent sting operation, the MAFF seized bags of pangolins on their way to Phnom

Penh restaurant tables.

Wildlife experts fear such unchecked poaching of

wild animals for food, coupled with the threat they already face from

international traders for their bones, skin, teeth and other products, could

wipe out much of Cambodian wildlife within a decade.

(See "New wildlife

unit", page 14)

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