At the bustling market in the capital of this rural province, one stall attracts more attention than the rest.
At dawn, rows of vendors at Banlung Market, slicing up freshly slaughtered cow and pig meat, call out to potential customers, but this one doesn’t need to compete.
On the table in front of her, the woman, who later identified herself as Wai Sokheng, proudly displays a small red muntjac deer. Unlike her neighbouring vendors, she leaves the animal’s body intact, with only the deer’s head removed; already sold to an early customer.
“How can I help you? I have the meat of wild pig, sambar, and hog deer. These meats are all good,” she says.
While red muntjac and wild pig are not threatened species, sambar is listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species as “vulnerable” and hog deer as “endangered”.
All of the animals are classified as state property in Cambodia, and to trade in them is illegal.
However that still does not deter Sokheng and her customers.
At the market last week, Sokheng told the Post that she buys between 30 and 40 kilograms of wildlife meat from local poachers every day.
While meats such as wild pig are easy to procure, she says it is harder to get her hands on other big sellers.
“The hog deer is so rarely available; we have to wait for a long time to get it once,” she says.
At the popular stall, meat is sold for between $6.21 and $15 per kilogram, depending on the species. And, in addition to the wildlife on offer last week, rabbit, tortoise, turtle and monitor lizard are among others Sokheng also claims to sell.
At her stall, customers said they were buying the wildlife to eat, produce traditional medicines and decorate their homes. And the service is not just limited to those in the remote province. According to Sokheng, customers across the country make orders on the phone and pay via a mobile payment service.
Corruption, she says, allows the illicit business to thrive.
Speaking on the phone yesterday, Sokheng said she pays Ratanakkiri’s anti-economic crime police between 150,000 riel (about $37) and 200,000 riel per month so that they will turn a blind eye.
She claimed other vendors operating illegally in the province are forced to do the same.
“If we do not pay, we cannot sell,” she explained, adding that she had been paying off officials for a number of years.
“I know that it is illegal, but I have no choice,” she said.
Nouv Dara, chief of Rattanakiri’s anti-economic crime office, claimed yesterday that he was not aware of the illicit business or of officers taking bribes.
“I will examine it, and if we see this [is happening] we will take legal action,” he said.
But while Dara said that he was not aware of Sokheng’s business, a local wildlife protection NGO has long been trying to shut it down.
Suwanna Gauntlett, founder and CEO of Wildlife Alliance (WA), said yesterday that Sokheng was first caught by the group trading in illegal wildlife in 2009.
In total, she has been caught by WA on at least 11 occasions.
“We’re going there very often and telling her to stop,” Gauntlett said. “She’s very much a repeat offender.”
But Sokheng is not the only person profiting from the poaching of Ratanakkiri’s precious wildlife.
Elsewhere, in Banlung Market the Post found another vendor running a more secretive operation.
The vendor, who declined to be named, carefully checked that no one was watching before uncovering a skinned red muntjac deer at her otherwise ordinary meat stall. Wildlife meat was also seen last week at other markets in the province.
The trade in illegal meats in Ratanakkiri is due largely to the fact that “there is no law enforcement going on on the ground to stop the poachers”, according to Gauntlett of WA.
She said that while poaching is an issue across the country, Ratanakkiri’s vast forests partnered with rapid deforestation create an “ideal poaching situation for traders”.
“Animals are displaced so they are easier to hunt. Everything is extracted – logs and wildlife,” she said. And, she added, even the hunting of common animals creates big problems.
“This whole deer and pig issue is much more important than deer and pigs. A snare that is put out to catch a deer is a snare put out to catch everything,” she said.
The hunting of such wildlife is also removing a crucial “prey base”, leaving “no chance of sustaining a population of large carnivores”, she added.
Other wildlife experts agreed that more needs to be done to stop the trade.
“Much more needs to be invested in enforcement and education efforts, discouraging this practice, and also providing different livelihood options for people currently making a good living off of harvesting commercially valuable species,” said Tracy Farrell, senior technical director at Conservation International’s Greater Mekong Program, who described poaching in Ratanakkiri as a “huge issue”.
Farrell said that fines should be levied against restaurants supporting poaching and “name-and-shame campaigns” considered.
Unless action is taken, Gauntlett said, the “unsustainable rape of natural resources” will continue.
The Ratanakkiri trade is not limited to the sale of fresh meat. At Banlung town restaurant Malis 77, dishes on the menu include wild pig, red muntjac, and “flying cat”.
A member of staff, who declined to be named, said the restaurant did not prepare the meats but ordered them from outside if guests asked.
“We know selling it is illegal, but we want to fulfill the guests’ needs,” he said.