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One man's struggle to save Cambodian wildlife

One man's struggle to save Cambodian wildlife

tiger.gif
tiger.gif

KING OF THE KHMER JUNGLE

This tiger was shot in Pursat last month by a local hunter.

About 1,000 of the big cats are thought to live in Cambodia.

AN American wildlife enthusiast estimates there are about 1,000 tigers still left

in Cambodia, as well as leopards, kouprey and other rare beasts.

And Hunter Weiler from Alaska wants to save them all. Or as many as he can.

What started as a pipe dream - and some may think a bit of an eccentric one - is

now exciting the interest of some big, rich save-the-animals groups.

He is already working alongside Cat Action Treasury (CAT), part of the worldwide

Save the Tiger network, which is funded in part by US oil giant Exxon, whose most

famous slogan is: "Put a tiger in your tank."

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF), whose patron the Duke of Edinburgh is a well-known

hunting, shooting and fishing enthusiast, is also keen to know what Weiler has discovered.

Weiler realizes that there is a lot of debate and controversy about the animal-saving

business, but he doesn't care. He's paying for his Cambodian conservation adventure

from his own pension and doesn't get a cent from anyone.

He says he knows the arguments and is learning more all the time. What he's found

out pretty quickly is that there are no easy answers.

He came late last year, at WWF's suggestion, to look for wild cattle in some of the

most remote areas of Cambodia. He was soon invited to work with the Ministry of Agriculture's

Wildlife Protection Office where five Khmer graduates were already working for CAT

doing a survey on tiger numbers.

Together, they have now produced what Weiler says is one of the most comprehensive

recent studies of the Kingdom's wildlife.

Figuring that local hunters would know better than anyone what kinds of animals are

roaming the forests and mountains, the team spent four months interviewing more than

300 hunters and officials all over rural Cambodia.

They discovered that the Cardamom and Elephant mountain ranges, from Kampong Speu

to Koh Kong and into Pursat, are "the most important tiger area in Cambodia,

and possibly in Indochina," he says. Hunters there said they often saw wandering

herds of elephants and wild cattle such as bantengs and gaurs.

There are also fishing cats, leopards, barking deer, sambaur (a type of deer) and

many other rare species, including the reclusive gazelle-like khiting vor.

The other area rich in wildlife is in Ratanakiri. Weiler says he has anecdotal proof,

which is good enough for him, that Cambodia's national animal, a forest cow called

the kouprey, is probably still in Ratanakiri.

"The local official [who reported seeing one] was adamant that he knew the difference

between a kouprey, a gaur and a banteng," he says.

Weiler's team also heard a story that late last year a policeman in Ratanakiri near

the O'Leo stream came across about 10 kouprey, so he opened fire with his AK-47 and

killed a pregnant female and wounded two others.

Weiler wrote in his report that if the kouprey is confirmed then the International

Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), formerly the sister organization of

the WWF, should be notified and an emergency action plan put in place to save it.

In Battambang, one hunter told the team "all the people living in Toek Kraham

village and travelers through the area saw a tiger walk across the road every month.

They could not shoot the tiger because it had magic".

Said another hunter from Stung Treng: "On January 20 this year the villagers

saw a tiger walking in the forest behind the village. The villagers say it is a God

tiger because it is always seen after they pray to God every year."

Weiler's next idea - he hopes with CAT and WWF support and funding - is to hold hunters'

workshops around the country were hunters can be educated about what he describes

as the "international conservation interest" in large mammals.

"We want to... see what we can do to turn them from hunters to guardians, protectors...

and pay them not to trap and snare and shoot."

He says he has "no problems" with hunters continuing to shoot certain animals

for food, but trading tiger skins and banteng horns, for instance, should be stopped.

Weiler notes than many hunters only hunt part-time, either for food or for market

demand outside Cambodia, and have done so for generations.

He claims that passing laws to stop local people shooting certain animals has not

really worked in any other country in the world, so it's better to give Cambodia's

hunters a financial incentive to stop the practice.

The likelihood that such a policy would create a new economic elite, spark jealousy

and prompt other Cambodians to suddenly claim to be hunters to get the money are

all issues that will have be ironed out, he concedes.

Asked whether CAT, or WWF, or anyone else would continue paying these former hunters

and their descendants, Weiler says: "If the international community wants to

see the continued existence of these large mammals they're going to have to pay for

it. What are we going to do to save these animals?"

Weiler fiercely opposes the idea of "protected areas", such as biosphere

reserves and sanctuaries - ideas similar to those being put forward by international

donors for the Tonle Sap - because that means denying people land and livelihood.

"I'm appalled at the concept. Forced relocation in Cambodia, especially after

the Khmer Rouge times, is not a good idea now or in the future."

He's also against arming local hunters to patrol wildlife areas. A recent World Bank-funded

study on forestry, for instance, advocated an armed force to protect trees and was

criticized by many people.

Captive breeding programs don't usually work well either, he said. Wild animals tend

to die outside their own environment, especially after having been shot with tranquilizer

dart guns. With the kouprey, he says, captive breeding may be too late anyway.

The argument, Weiler agrees, is over the root-cause of the animals' disappearance.

The hunters themselves almost unanimously admit that hunting, snares, mines and soldiers

are the biggest threat to the tiger.

Weiler says that the overseas market for rare animals has to be changed, by law and

education, "and till those markets are reduced the hunters' [here] will respond

to it. And why shouldn't they? That's why we have to give them an economic alternative."

Others disagree. Deforestation is the main cause of the animals' disappearance, says

one international expert, because it both denies them land and opens up virgin areas

with logging roads that facilitate still more hunting and poaching.

Even in Weiler's own survey of 32 local officials in one area, only two saw guns

as the biggest threat to the tiger. One said it was forest burning, eight said war

- and 21 said deforestation.

Another problem is that the Wildlife Protection Office is in the Forestry Department

of the Ministry of Agriculture rather than the Ministry of Environment.

The expert says that local forestry officials tend to look down on wildlife officials

because more money can be made from trees than animals.

"As long as people can get an income from trading in animals they will keep

poaching them. And as long as logging continues there will be less land for the animals

and more opportunity for people to be able to hunt them," said the wildlife

expert.

"It's a question of education and a question of regulation. It will take a lot

of time and some animals will be extinct before we reach that level here," he

said.

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