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Cambodia’s ‘silent scourge’ ramps up

Chhouk, an elephant at the Phnom Tamao wildlife sanctuary, had his leg amputated after being injured by a wire snare. Photo supplied
Chhouk, an elephant at the Phnom Tamao wildlife sanctuary, had his leg amputated after being injured by a wire snare. Photo supplied

Cambodia’s ‘silent scourge’ ramps up

Ten years ago Nick Marx, animal rescue director for Wildlife Alliance (WA), received a call from rangers in Kirirom National Park about a young Asiatic black bear caught in a snare. While trekking to free the cub, his team chanced upon a snare and disarmed it. Then they found another one. Then another and another.

Before even reaching the animal, they had disarmed nearly 200 snares. Marx remembers one dangling the skeleton of a muntjak deer, picked clean and suspended like a haunted house chandelier. 

The bear was luckier. They managed to free the cub and transfer it to the Phnom Tamao wildlife sanctuary, where Marx also works. But an infection meant that a few days later its leg had to be amputated. 

Marx says he has encountered countless such snare casualties since. “Snaring is the most indiscriminate and cruellest way of hunting there is,” he lamented this week after recounting the bear episode.

“It is an issue that isn’t considered important enough.” But things may be getting worse. A newer, more advanced snare recently found by patrolmen in Mondulkiri province suggests the destructive practice is ramping up here in both technology and scope. 

The new snare has been most commonly spotted in Seima Protected Forest, near Vietnam. The new model possessed an upgraded design involving heftier metals and cable, according to Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) director Ross Sinclair, whose group advises government patrols in Seima.

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One of a new generation of snares found in Seima Protected Forest. wcs

“This is a new snare. None of our guys had seen them before,” he said. Previously, confiscated snares were made of simple materials, such as motorbike clutch or brake cables. These new snares, which rangers believe came from Vietnamese poachers, were made from much sturdier materials and, according to the WCS director, indicated a further “commercialisation” of the practice. 

“Some of them would catch everything short of an elephant: big wild cattle, things that weigh a ton,” Sinclair explained at the WCS office while displaying one of the newly found heavy-duty traps. It was made of thick metal piping, with sturdy springs at one end, all of it rusted brown from sitting in wait on the jungle floor.

The snare cable, looped at one end to capture some unfortunate foot, felt unbreakable. The snare would be anchored to a strong tree, hidden by underbrush, with a trigger pad that, when stepped on, would set it off “like a giant spring”, said Sinclair. 

Similar models had also been found by World Wildlife Fund (WWF)-assisted teams in two protected Mondulkiri forests adjacent to Seima, according to Moul Phath, WWF’s Eastern Plains Landscape manager. 

There were other alarming advancements. Along with the more potent snares, rangers in Seima reported finding wiring set up around game trails designed to shock animals toward snares.

Rangers elsewhere in Mondulkiri had recently found snares that were themselves electrified, reported Phath. In increasingly deadlier ways, Cambodia’s protected forests are being systematically booby-trapped. 

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A primitive wire snare set-up found in the Seima Protected Forest. wcs

Yet it is only a continuation of an age-old practice. Snare traps have occupied nearly every forest here, report conservationists, as well as woodlands in Vietnam and Laos, for decades.

Some snare lines (high concentrations of traps set about a metre apart) stretch for as far as a kilometre, like marine drift nets, and remain active for weeks or months at a time. Part of their unique deviousness stems from their indiscrimination, snapping up common and endangered species alike.

WA director Suwanna Gauntlett estimates that 80 per cent of wildlife captured in Cambodia was caught by wire or net snares. Victims suffer prolonged, miserable deaths. The lucky ones chew off limbs. In the Cardamoms alone, rangers confiscated about 28,000 snares in 2015, reported Gauntlett. 

The distressing new discoveries appear at a time when the demand for wildlife in Asia, fuelled by robust traditional medicine and food markets, surges alongside regional economic growth. In Cambodia, all wildlife is considered state property and its trade is illegal.

Yet as the country advances, the wildlife trade grows with it. As put by William DeBuys, an investigative journalist who recently published a book on the subject, “the current war on wildlife in Southeast Asia results not from poverty but from wealth”. And as demand improves, so too does the method of supply. 

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Hunters conceal snares with brush along frequented game trails. wcs

“It’s commercial,” Sinclair said of the new snares. “The people doing it are able to take the monetary risk of having these valuable snares confiscated – they’re making enough money out of it. This thing wasn’t built by a guy in a village.” 

While efforts have been made to combat snaring, such as regular patrol teams dispatched in some areas by the Forestry Administration (FA), activists say that government higher-ups have been reluctant to seriously crack down on a practice traditionally used by farmers for subsistence hunting. But activists discount claims that snares are mostly for personal use anymore.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Gauntlett said, echoing other conservationists. “It’s very well organised.”

Vague legislation – the law allows arrests only if hunters are caught in the act of setting a snare – as well as a dearth of public pressure further complicates a crackdown. One activist described it as a “silent scourge”.

FA director Chheng Kimsun said this week that a new set of wildlife laws was in the works, but could not speculate as to when it would be drafted. “It depends on the consultation process,” he said.   

But for activists, changes could not come soon enough. “Until offenders are penalised more often, snaring will carry on and wipe everything out,” Marx said.


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