Renegade game hunters in Battambang province say dire local conditions have forced them into the illegal wildlife trade, but most say they would give it up if they could make a safer living
The son of an illegal wildlife trader holds a snake in Battambang’s Koas Krala district.
IT is well before dawn when the hunters awake and begin the 15-kilometre trip up Battambang province's Arey mountain to inspect their homemade traps.
Walking through flooded plains and muddied ledges, the hunters are all poor villagers, driven into the dangerous world of illegal game hunting by dire farming conditions and a desperate need to feed their families.
"It's a secret business," says Nioy, a 30-year-old villager who is too afraid of being arrested to give his full name.
"I must give the authorities some money to close their eyes," he says, adding that sometimes he hands gifts of wild boar meat to local police to allow him to continue the illicit trade unhindered.
Though Nioy and other hunters like him have been the target of numerous local and international conservation efforts aiming to protect Cambodia's shrinking population of endangered wildlife, he says he always works in tandem with government officials and is only engaged in the trade to support his family.
"We stay in the forest but the authorities always come in their cars to get money from us when they find out we have caught an animal," Nioy says.
"I don't want to do this job, but I have no other way of earning money to support my family and my daughter's studies."
Among Nioy's weekly bounty are wild boar, deer, rabbits and, if he has the time, snakes and turtles, he says - all illegal to hunt without a permit.
I don't want to do this job, but i have no other way ... to support my family.
"If I have good luck I can catch two wild boars and a deer in one month. A wild boar usually weighs between 60 and 70 kilograms, and I can sell it to my middleman for about 15,000 riels (US$3.62) a kilogram," he says.
The perils of the jungle and the danger of getting caught without bribe money rarely outweigh the cash made from rare catches, says Kosal, 28, another renegade of the illegal wildlife trade.
"If we go to the forest to check our traps, we always take a spear. Without a spear, a wild boar could run and crush us," he told the Post.
"This business is hard. Wild animals are dangerous, and I have to hunt in secret with the authorities. But it is easy to sell the meat at the market; all I have do is call my middlemen when I get an animal and they come to my home," he says.
Flirting with danger
For Chum Kreat, the most experienced of the group of hunters, danger is not only present during illegal hunts; it is a central and necessary part of the job.
"To catch animals I trick them by lying near the trap and waiting for them. When the ... wild boar runs at me, I catch it and throw it into my trap. I need to do it quickly to get my spear and kill it. Sometimes if I cannot throw them into my trap, I have to run under a tree, otherwise it will kill me," he says.
Chum Kreat says he would never choose to do such a risky job, but feels that he and other residents of his small village in Battambang's Koas Krala district have few other opportunities.
"Koas Krala does not have good conditions for people to live in. Sometimes it floods, sometimes there's drought. The crops are always damaged and there is never enough clean water for us to use," says Chum Kreat, adding that the hunters are caught between the vagaries of nature and the risk of legal action.
"I risk my life just to catch one animal, but the authorities come to get money from me and sometimes even threaten to arrest us. I know I work illegally, but if I had the money to support my living any other way I wouldn't do this job," he says.
Sun Tek, the provincial coordinator for local rights group Licadho, compared the illegality of wildlife hunting to sports betting in cities, a practice recently outlawed by the government.
"To do it, they have to pay money to authorities. It is similar to gambling houses in town, they must pay monthly bribes to officials, otherwise they cannot do it," he says.
But Koas Kala district police Chief Son Chheung Chhang says he has "never heard" about people hunting illegal wildlife in his jurisdiction.
"Whether they do it secretly or not, I don't know," he says. "If we knew they were [hunting] we would ban them, and if we saw animal meat we would confiscate it."
Sin Nhar, governor of Koas Krala district, admits, however, that a certain degree of compassion is shown to small-scale game hunters.
"Sometimes we close our eyes because they are so poor, and they are not doing it for a big business, only a small family," he says. "I think a few of my villagers might hunt illegally, but we don't know because they do it in secret, in the forest far from the village. It is illegal and we always try to educate them about natural resources," he adds.
This is the first of a two-part series. Read the final instalment Thursday.