Just after sunrise in the slums surrounding the Stung Meanchey dump, Lak Han, 45, sits in the dirt outside his home methodically chopping up a large pile of rodents.
For many years, like hundreds of others at the dumpsite, Mr. Han made a paltry living collecting scraps of garbage until he turned to a more lucrative source of income—hunting rats.
At about 7 p.m. every evening, dozens of rat catchers make their way from the dumpsite into central Phnom Penh where, as residents are well aware, there is an abundance of large rodents for them to target.
Among them is Mr. Han, who scours the areas around major marketplaces—where discarded waste attracts vermin—to find his fast-moving prey.
When he comes across a furry, gray rodent, he must move quickly to pierce it with a homemade wooden spear with a fine metal point on the end.
“We use a spear to stab the rats,” he said. “We flash our flashlights at them and then we stab them.
“Afterwards they are still alive so we hit them until they die and we keep them in our bags.”
Mr. Han spends most nights prowling the city’s streets, before returning to his metal shack at the dumpsite by 6 a.m. to begin preparing the rat meat.
According to Stung Meanchey residents, the meat is trucked to Poipet City and then taken across the border to Thailand, where it is processed for human consumption.
“After we hunt them we chop off their heads, skin them, and remove their insides, but we do not have to clean them since they are stored in ice,” Mr. Han explained on Friday morning as he prepared the previous evening’s fly-covered catch.
The father of three, who used to earn just 10,000 riel, (about $2.50), a day as a junk collector before becoming a rat hunter three years ago, said grinding poverty had driven him into this line of work.
“We really want to change our job since it is dangerous, but we do not have a choice…. We have to find money to support our families,” he said.
For all of the men at the Stung Meanchey waste site who have made rat catching their livelihood, their decision comes down to simple economics. Mr. Han said he could earn as much as $32.50 per day when he first started catching, at the height of the rat market.
However, the price they can fetch for their catch is now starting to fall.
Sok Kom, 29, previously made about $60 per month working for an oil distribution firm but now receives 3,500 riel ($0.87) per kg of rats.
He says increasing competition has driven down his nightly haul from about 15 kg to 10 kg or less, making his livelihood less sustainable than it once was.
And as more people have flocked to the vocation, the sole buyer has also slashed the price for a kilogram of rodents from 6,500 riel ($1.62) to 3,500 riel. A night’s work might now net Mr. Kom only $8.75, down from about $24.
“If the buyer keeps decreasing the price and we can’t catch as many rats, we [my wife and I] might become junk collectors,” he said.
Rat catchers say they must contend with vicious dogs, police who suspect them of carrying out crimes because of their spears and actual lawbreakers who believe them to be police interrupting their criminal activities.
“When I go hunting at night I am afraid of the gangsters since they think we are coming to interrupt them [because of our torches]…. They sometimes chase me and try to hit me,” Mr. Kom said.
Fellow rat catcher Chea Oun, 31, said he regularly had to clamber into the city’s drainage system to pin down his prey.
“It is hard for us to catch the rats since they often stay inside the drains so we have to crawl in after them,” he said. “The smell in the drains is really bad, but we have become used to it.”
Despite the unpleasant nature of their work, Mr. Oun said he and his fellow rat catchers had little choice but to keep hunting, even with the descending price of their catch.
“We cannot complain since we have only one buyer, therefore we have no choice and we can only sell to him…. He is the one who sets the price for us,” he said.
The purchaser of the rats is a comparatively well-off businessman who lives in a two-story concrete house at the dump.
He refused to talk to a reporter before driving away on a motorbike, but his wife, Pov Chantho, 55, said the couple bought about 100 kg of rats per day.
Speaking as a steady stream of people brought their catch to be weighed outside her family’s home, Ms. Chantho said the rat meat, which is stored in large plastic coolers, was being sold to Thai buyers.
“We keep it for about five days and when we get about 500 kg with 10 pieces of ice and send it to Thailand,” she said.
“We have to put a lot of ice in it to keep the rat meat fresh. If we do not do this it will spoil and we will lose our money.”
Cambodia has long exported live rats to Vietnam, where the meat is considered a delicacy, and people in the northeast of Thailand are also said to have a taste for rodents.
However, unlike the rats being sent to Vietnam, which mostly live in provincial rice paddies and eat plants, the rats now apparently being sent to Thailand subsist on Phnom Penh’s waste.
Ms. Chantho said that she had a nephew in Poipet City who contacted the couple with a business proposition—find people willing to catch rats so that he could export them out of the country.
“He told us that he had people who wanted to buy rats in Thailand, so we asked our people to look for rats and sell them to us,” she said.
When asked why rat catchers were now receiving half of what they once did for a kilogram of rodents, she replied: “We do not earn much from this business.”
Oum Sophal, police chief of Poipet City, said he had never heard of Cambodians exporting rats to Thailand. Agriculture Minister Ouk Rabun said he was looking into the matter.