STRIDING through the remote jungle of the Cardamom Mountains, surrounded by gun-toting Cambodian military policemen, former paratrooper and professional kickboxer Franck Morin stops dead.
The 40-year-old French wildlife ranger has spotted what he came to seek out and destroy: 21 illegal hunting snares intended to entrap rare pangolins, monkeys and boar for sale on the domestic and foreign food and medicine markets.
The poachers’ carefully constructed makeshift walls of stick and mud are often found on the edge of rivers, channelling animals through small openings in the wall to set off string snares.
The more a creature struggles in the loop, the tighter it becomes.
With pangolins fetching up to US$300 on the black market, the hunters operating in the government-protected forests can reap large rewards for impoverished communities. The price is the destruction of protected and rare wildlife.
As Morin stomps and crushes the traps, the frustration is clear on his face.
“These traps don’t differentiate between species,” he said.
Determined to halt the killing, NGOs such as Wildlife Alliance (WA) are using new initiatives to halt the hunt.
Nestled on the banks of a meandering river, the sleepy village of Chi Pat seems a rural idyll. But the gentle pace of its high street masks a chequered and often disturbing history.
Since the Khmer Rouge came to the town in the 1970s, transporting many residents from neighbouring villages with them for labour, the forests have been logged, slashed and burned without let-up.
International logging has destroyed large swathes of greenery, leaving giant balding vistas without a tree in sight. Poaching became a way of life for villagers living in the remote area with little alternative for work and low rice yields.
Since 2006, WA has been trying to convert the 555-family community of Chi Pat into an ecotourism site capable of providing an alternative earning base to poaching.
The group hopes that the construction of a visitors’ centre and support given to the local community to organise treks through the jungle for adventure tourists, the wildlife of the forest can be protected.
According to the community, rising visitor numbers – from 447 visitors in 2007-08 to 900 in 2008-09 and 230 in January and February 2010 alone – have had an effect.
“I have been hunting as well as farming since I was young. That is typical of this community. But when the visitors come, people get good alternative money,” said 37-year-old former poacher and head of the Community Based Eco-Tourism (CBET) committee Prum Hum
“There are still people who are hunting, but they are mostly outside people.”
A quick stroll down the main road emphasises the changes made in Chi Pat. The air rings with the sounds of saws and the construction of new houses, while on each corner of the main drag lies a shiny new guesthouse.
The grandfather of 12, Neat Sok, 78, who believes the influx of tourism can help the environment, has seen the changes that have ravaged the jungle over the years. Sitting under the shade of his wooden home, he said: “Before the Khmer Rouge regime, we saw tigers in the village. I also heard the sounds of elephants nearby my house. But a lot of animals were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge regime because a lot of people had weapons in their hand.”
Ban Som, 66 and the grandmother of nine, also noted that after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, fewer trees were cut down, and now foreigners are walking the streets of the town for the first time.
While the town is changing, it is yet to be seen whether Chi Pat can become a successful model for the development of tourism. Much, it is clear, has still to be done.
While the CBET committee says that hunting by Chi Pat locals has been almost eliminated since the project was launched, Morin’s experiences tell otherwise. There is no doubt that traps in the jungle are still laid, and a few months before the Post visited, one man was found carrying 14 monkeys captured in the woods.
Tensions between the Western workers who are trying to enforce poaching laws and locals in the village are rumoured to be high, and questions are being asked whether the number of guesthouses being built in the community is sustainable.
WA officials also admit that wildlife brokers still operate in the community, capitalising on the villagers’ frequent trips into the jungle.
“It is very difficult to arrest the brokers, as they don’t do anything – just give orders. And most of the time they are very, very, very rich,” said Morin.
And so, while NGO workers say they believe that time will tell whether Chi Pat will become a sustainable project, workers continues to do what they can to stop the wildlife trade.
Day and night, Morin and his team patrol jungle to stop illegal poachers, changing the trails they monitor each day to catch their targets.
The CBET committee has also vowed to preach the message of change, for both illegal logging and poaching.
“I tell people that when you cut down trees, you are killing yourself,” said its chairman. “If people still continue this activity, there will be nothing.”