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Kickboxers join the fight for wildlife

Kickboxers join the fight for wildlife

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Mr Tha the Bear, Tiger Om Deth, Buffalo Sam Ol, and Chantha the Elephant reveal their inner selves.

A

s Prach Chan, the provincial governor of Battambang, makes his way to the boxing

ring across the muddy field just off National Route 5, representatives of four species

of endangered wildlife rush to welcome him.

Children running around among kickboxers warming up and the animal welcoming committee

approaching the governor don't seem to mind that the buffalo, bear, tiger and elephant

are motodups in furry costumes. Today, animals are the center of attention.

The Battambang kickboxing match on October 12 was the first in a series of five free

matches to be staged around Cambodia by conservation NGO WildAid. Cooperating with

local authorities and using fighters, movie stars and pop singers to give voice to

the campaign, the Active Conservation Awareness Programme (ACAP), targets the younger

generation.

And according to the "tiger," 21-year-old Battambang resident Om Deth,

raising awareness on the consequences of consuming wildlife is crucial - especially

with young people.

"My generation doesn't know so much about this problem. People still kill wildlife

and eat it, and soon there will be nothing left," says Deth. "If that happens

I will be very sad, because the Cambodian people are very proud of their forest animals."

In the next six months, WildAid will arrange kickboxing matches in Siem Reap, Sihanoukville,

Kratie and Stung Treng - all regions where WildAid field reporters have deemed selling

of wildlife to be a serious problem.

Another local, "buffalo" Sam Ol, 26, says only a few restaurants in Battambang

city still have forest wildlife on the menu.

"But in the countryside you can get anything you want if you know the right

people," he says.

On a platform facing the boxing ring, WildAid country director Giada Raimondo and

Governor Chan deliver speeches, urging the audience to call WildAid's hotline if

they see forest animals for sale anywhere.

Raimondo gestures to a 3-meter-high placard facing the boxing ring with the hotline

number written on the bottom. Above that, the drawing of a chained bear bleeding

from its amputated limbs crystallizes the issue.

Bear claw soup and bear gall bladder are still considered to have life-prolonging

abilities, and are the kind of traditional dishes targeted by the ACAP campaign.

When preparing bear claw soup, the claws are cut off while the bear is still alive,

sometimes leaving the animal to suffer for hours or days.

Sam Ol says he had bear paw soup several years ago in a Battambang restaurant. The

soup was very tasty, he says - but too expensive. Today, he says he wouldn't eat

the soup even if it was offered for free. Not that there is much chance of that:

it goes for $300 a bowl these days.

In 2001, WildAid conducted a similar awareness project in Phnom Penh, with mobile

units visiting and revisiting all the restaurants, medical shops and market stalls

in the capital. They put up stickers warning customers and vendors against contributing

to the killing of forest wildlife. After a few months, over-the-counter wildlife

game had vanished from Phnom Penh.

Raimondo believes the same thing could happen in the provinces. She is convinced

WildAid's persistent mobile units will have an impact. As will the kickboxing matches,

she hopes. "It's really important to raise people's awareness on this issue.

Many don't realize that you need to stop the buying before you can stop the killing,"

Raimondo says.

When the bell sounds marking the end of a match, a video projector next to the boxing

ring beams testimonials from role models such as pop singer Preap Sovath, movie star

Tep Rindaro, and kickboxing champion Eh Phu Thong - all repeating WildAid's slogan:

"Stop the buying; stop the killing."

Darkness falls, and the first WildAid kick boxing match in Battambang has drawn a

crowd of more than 1,500 to the muddy field on the outskirts of the city.

Everyone cheers As Eh Phu Thong makes his way to the ring. He has agreed with WildAid

officials to hold back and make the fight last a full five rounds, giving the audience

a good show. But a few seconds into the second round, his opponent launches a furious

attack, forcing him to fight back and eventually send the man crashing to the mat

with a perfect right jab to the chin. The fight is over.

As his opponent scrambles to his feet, Phu Thong is handed three stacks of tee-shirts

which he sends flying into the crowd.

Hundreds of hands reach out for them. A young boy pulls a tee-shirt over his head

that reaches all the way down to his knees. On the back is another graphic picture

of an injured bear. The front reads: "Do not turn your back on us."

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