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Wild elephants slaughtered in Cardamoms

Wild elephants slaughtered in Cardamoms

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AT least six wild elephants - and possibly dozens more - have been killed by

poachers in recent months in remote areas of the Cardamom Mountains, according

to Government officials and wildlife experts.

An elephant's skull among the skeletons found along the Areng river

The world's largest land

mammals are being shot and butchered on the spot so that their tusks, trunks,

tails, lungs and bones can be sold via an intricate black-market network of

hunters, soldiers, ethnic Chinese traders and corrupt government officials,

sources say.

"We've discovered three groups of elephant killers," said

Sun Hean, Deputy Director of the Wildlife Protection Office (WPO), while he

showed the Post pictures of bones which confirm the recent six

killings.

Hean is unsure of the total number of wild elephants that have

been slaughtered.

"Some people say 70, some say 50, but we aren't sure,"

he says.

Hean estimates that in the entire Cardamom region there are "not

more than 200 elephants" left in the wild.

The discovery of the slain

elephants has prompted the Government to respond urgently in an effort to stop

the killings, which have possibly endangered the overall survival of the wild

elephant population in the mountainous south-western region.

"If we are

down to 200 elephants in the Cardamoms, that's pretty close to the minimum

biologically viable population," says Hunter Weiler, Cat Action Treasury Project

Officer, referring to an earlier study of wild elephants

worldwide.

Weiler also notes that "given the best information available

today in the absence of detailed field surveys" there are probably no more than

400 wild elephants left in the entire country. This includes several populations

east of the Mekong in Rattanakiri and Mondulkiri and smaller numbers in Preah

Vihear and Kampong Thom.

According to Hean, the WPO first learned of the

elephant killings in one of its monthly reports submitted by WPO's Koh Kong

office of the Community-Based Tiger Conservation Project (TCOP) at the end of

September.

TCOP, an effort supported by the Save the Tiger Fund and the

US Fish and Wildlife Service via the Cat Action Treasury, has an active team of

ex-hunters who spend two weeks a month patrolling jungle areas to monitor the

status of wildlife.

One "Wildlife Ranger" reporting from Koh Kong

Province's T'mar Beng district said he'd seen scattered groups of elephant bones

along the Areng river valley.

The WPO interviewed the ranger and sent him

back to the field with a camera and global positioning system (GPS) to determine

the exact locations of the killings. Information was also collected on who was

perpetrating the crimes and how the elephant remains were being marketed.

According to Hean, the three groups of elephant killers include: one

group of six, comprising two "unprofessional hunters", two district policemen

and two other villagers, all from T'mar Beng; a second group of 15 soldiers,

reportedly from a unit designated "E-83"; and a third group of three

"unprofessional hunters".

WPO sent "negotiators" to contact the first

group, and says they have now agreed to stop killing elephants, with the two

leaders - Nat Vun and Kong Vuthy - having signed and thumb-printed contracts to

that effect. To encourage the leaders to mend their errant ways, the WPO offered

them jobs as TCOP rangers which includes a salary of $50 a month and training in

wildlife protection.

Hean admits that guaranteeing that further killings

of elephants won't take place is a difficult prospect.

"It's really hard

to work with people in the forest," he says. "But now we have a legal way to get

[Nat Vun and Kong Vuthy] to obey the law."

With the possible collusion of

RCAF soldiers in the elephant poaching and with related reports that a senior

T'mar Beng District official was involved in both illegal logging and the

wildlife trade, the Ministry of Defense has become involved and is investigating

the issue.

According to an informed source: "There is visible evidence

of RCAF intervening to stop illegal logging in and around T'mar Beng. The

removal of a known sawmill last month being but one example."

But the

problem remained on what to do with the roughly 300 RCAF 5th Battalion soldiers

in and around T'mar Beng, most of whom are paid only $20 a month - when they get

it - plus a 20-kilogram monthly rice allotment, and who have much time on their

hands to look for ways to secure additional income.

Wild animals and

logs, conservationists note, are easy pickings for those with almost no money

and days to kill.

Information collected by one conservationist following

the issue indicates that a fresh elephant trunk used for some kind of medicinal

soup which is alleged to enhance sexual potency sells locally for $300. Ivory

tusks are going for $60 a kilogram and bones sell for $20 a kilo.

"We

could stop this problem easily if we showered Asian cities with Viagra," the

observer noted wryly.

With encouragement from several quarters, a meeting

was held on December 5 at WPO attended by the Ministry of Defense (MoD) Vice

Chief of the General Staff, General Chea Saran, Sun Hean and a Forest Crime

Monitoring Unit official.

As a result of the meeting, the general gave a

commitment that the 300 soldiers would be withdrawn from T'mar Beng by the end

of December, a move considered by observers as critical to ending both poaching

and illegal logging in the region.

"Yes, [MoD was] very cooperative,"

said Hean. "They agreed to take out the military [from T'mar Beng]. We have a

clear commitment from them."

A major step forward in the struggle to save

Cambodia's elephants? Possibly.

But analysts note that with increasing

pressure on the Cardamoms from new logging roads, an influx of settlers and the

difficulties in monitoring an area which covers over one million hectares, the

future is uncertain.

"[The Government's efforts are] a dramatic step

forward in stabilizing the current elephant population and maintaining it for

the long-term," says Weiler, "but the elephants [in the Cardamoms] are still

under siege."

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