Rokar village empties during the dry season as the workforce migrates to find more gainful employment. But when the monsoon arrives, they return, not to fish as has traditionally been their staple income, but for a more lucrative trade: catching leeches.
Chinese demand for the bloodsucking worms, which are used widely in traditional medicine, can earn the Rokar villagers up to 10 times what they would make from fishing, villagers told the Post.
Khorn Kosal, a 40-year-old leech catcher, carries a bucket covered in cloth as he walks towards the house of a local businessman in Kampong Thom province’s Stung Sen district who is a regular buyer who supplies to the Chinese.
He says the trade had become popular in recent years as fish stocks have dwindled in the area.
“During the rainy season, people return to the village because they can earn money easily from catching leeches. It’s much easier to earn money catching leeches than it is from fishing,” he said.
Kosal places the bucket on the ground and removes the cloth, revealing scores of squirming leeches inside.
Sometimes, the leech catchers venture as far as Poipet, Battambang and Kampong Chhnang in search of their prize.
“We find out where the leeches are by asking rice farmers. When we know the place where the leeches are, we rush to catch them,” Kosal adds.
So many are now harvesting Rokar’s leeches that the population has declined significantly, according to another leech collector, Kong Than. “In this career, we can say that it is sometimes easy and sometimes hard, because we lure them with our fresh blood, and we catch them when they rush for the blood.”
Than might catch upwards of 700 grams of leeches in a day, netting him up to 100,000 riel (about $25), compared to the 10,000 riel he says he used to make selling fish.
When he arrives at his chosen location, usually a river or paddy field, he rolls up his trousers and dangles his leg in the water, stirring slowly to attract his prey.
After 10 or 20 minutes, if there’s no sign of life in the water, he moves on to the next spot. “Normally, the leeches come in groups, not one-by-one, so we can see many of them at once.”
Than added that while the business is more profitable than fishing, there are some overheads to consider.
“It is hard to catch fish nowadays; catching leeches is easier and a better-paid job, though we have to spend a little of our blood,” he said.
Middle men are also cashing in on the leech harvest. Sitting under his wooden stilt home, scales at the ready, Deab Phal weighs out about 40 kilograms of leeches he’ll buy to resell to dealers in Kampong Thom town who have contacts in China.
He says he has spent as much as $2,500 in one day buying from the leech catchers. The leeches live for about a week, and Phal does not want them to die, because dead leeches fetch a much lower price.
The Chinese buyers like to kill and dry out the leeches themselves to ensure the consistency of their product.
“I’m not sure what the Chinese people are going to do with those leeches. I just know they turn them into medicine,” he said. “I am still full of questions about the type of medicine, because they buy hundreds of kilograms of leeches.”
Treatments using leeches have been practised for thousands of years. Leech saliva has been shown to have similar properties to modern pain medication, thinning the blood and also acting as a mild anesthetic.
While many of the leech catchers rave about their recent successes, others like Chhuo Khol have seen demand outstrip supply, with catches sometimes falling to as little as 50 grams a day, which will fetch only about 3,000 riel when sold to a trader.
He recalls with nostalgia how three years ago he bagged 3 kilograms in a single day, earning him 180,000 riel, about $45.
“The people in this village will have no jobs if the leeches run out,” he says. “Fishing here is too difficult.”