The murder last week of three forest patrollers in the Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary has put a spotlight on the dangers to conservationists in the face of endemic logging, and reignited a conversation about how best to protect often ill-equipped patrollers.
The deaths have prompted soul searching among stakeholders, particularly over how to train – and potentially arm – forest patrollers, but observers in recent days have said such questions ignore an even thornier issue: how best to tackle widespread forest crimes when those being policed are often police themselves.
Seng Teak, country director for the World Wildlife Fund, said in an emailed statement that a survey by the organisation found that 68 percent of more than 500 rangers polled in the region have faced a life-threatening situation.
“Cambodia is no different,” he wrote, noting that rangers “deserve the very best support in terms of professional training, equipment, salary and the ability to defend themselves”.
At the time they were attacked in the jungle last Tuesday, neither Wildlife Conservation Society staffer Thol Khna nor Ministry of Environment ranger Theun Soknay were armed because they were forbidden from carrying weapons.
Only Military Police officer Sok Vothana was carrying a weapon. Accounts have emerged since the shooting that suggest Vothana was the first one shot by a group of soldiers and border police who came to the scene after learning of a bust there, leaving Soknay and Khna virtually defenceless.
Read more: Charges laid in forest patroller murders
The deaths last week were not the first reminders of patrollers’ vulnerabilities. In 2015, a Forestry Administration ranger and a policeman were killed on patrol in Preah Vihear province, a case which led to several arrests, including that of a soldier. Because FA rangers are allowed to carry weapons, the group was armed, though in the dead of night they were not in a position to defend themselves.
In response to the shooting in Keo Seima, Environment Minister Say Samal issued a reminder to all provincial departments “to be cautious”, to patrol with more rangers and to do so alongside other authorities, ministry spokesman Sao Sopheap said yesterday.
The issue of better equipping, training and arming rangers has been a significant focus of the Environment Ministry’s agenda since Minister Samal began his term four years ago. At that time, according to Sopheap, some rangers were allowed to carry weapons, but unevenness in training and protocol led the minister to order an internal review of equipment and training.
“Our minister really needs to make sure the rangers are all trained and have understanding in terms of their role and responsibility, including handling guns,” he said. “There is still a lot of internal discussion among management of the ministry on allowing our rangers to carry guns and handle guns during the patrolling and law enforcement within the protected areas”.
According to Dr Tracy Farrell, of Conservation International – which offers training to MoE rangers – the organisation is conducting an internal review of its own policies in light of the most recent shootings in Keo Seima.
WCS and CI have liaised about the incident, she said, and the information will be used to improve safety of staff and the rangers they support.
“Sadly in the Seima case, the issue of being so close to the border and the issues of transport across it make that site tremendously challenging to manage,” she said.
Five of the six of suspects arrested in the killings are either police or soldiers stationed at the border with Vietnam. While Farrell said she that hopes a “thorough investigation” takes place, the case also involves complications beyond routine safety, combat training and field tactics.
“[T]he bigger issue here, which is what [Environment Minister] Say Samal has to deal with, is what to do when various forces conflict,” she said. “I don’t yet see a clear consistent policy emerging yet.”
The Environment Ministry’s Sopheap said that within protected areas, jurisdiction over cases of illegal logging, poaching or land encroachment falls to Ministry of Environment rangers on the scene. Still, at the provincial level, local officials have the authority to lead and instruct operations on the ground, he said.
Ben Davis, who runs an ecotourism business in Preah Vihear in a 7,000-hectare community forest where he has coordinated patrols since 2012 with villagers and rangers, said there are also clear limitations to what arming and beefing up patrols could accomplish.
The instructions to patrol in larger groups, for instance, are a challenge in his area – part of the 42,000 hectare Phnom Thnaot Wildlife Sanctuary – where there are only three rangers to begin with. When armed officials such as soldiers accompany him, they are volunteering their time and are not always available.
Assuming adequate training, he said, weapons “would make a big difference”, though other armed authorities are not the only threat.
“A lot of loggers have homemade muzzle loaders, which are deadly, [when] rangers are trying to take guns or chainsaws and they don’t have anything to back them up . . . If those guys decide to get tough with them, there’s nothing they can do but back off,” he said, adding that in the past year he has been trailed by armed men on three occasions. But ultimately, Davis notes, there’s an inherent danger that goes with each seizure of equipment at a logging bust.
“Every single time I’ve been involved in a confiscation, people try to bribe you to get it back, and you get phone calls from the people and their facilitators who will call you to get it back and ask, ‘How much do I have to pay to get it back?’” he said. He suspects a similar scenario might have played out in Keo Seima.
“These people are under pressure, and if you say you don’t want a bribe, that makes them mad, and maybe that’s why they shot them.”
Additional reporting by Phak Seangly