banlung, Ratanakkiri province – Government authorities here say they are working hard to stamp out the smuggling of wildlife to Vietnam.
But Phoeun, who operates a pickup taxi here, has a different take on the government’s efforts.
As recently as last month, a group of men paid him to take them and their cargo—more than a ton of tortoises, poisonous snakes and scaly anteaters—to the Vietnam border.
The trip was made during the day. As they came to the border, the taxi was stopped by a group of armed police, said Phoeun, who asked that his full name not be used.
Though the cargo was plainly visible, the wildlife was not seized. Instead, money was handed to the officers and the cargo was on its way to Vietnam.
After seeing this, Phoeun scoffs at claims the government is cracking down on wildlife trafficking. “How could the measures be effective if police are blinded and paid off?” he said.
Corruption is just one of the problems Cambodia faces in controlling a rampant wildlife trade. Laws are weak and unclear. Jurisdictions overlap, causing confusion and inaction. International demand for rare wildlife continues to rise while those who are supposed to be stopping the smuggling are often under-trained and underpaid—and sometimes involved in the trafficking.
Meanwhile, conservationists say, Cambodia’s fields, forests and streams—from Ratanakkiri to Oddar Meanchey to the southwestern Cardamom mountains— are being picked clean of several species of animals highly sought as food, medicine, trophies or pets.
Much of the wildlife leaves the country here, in remote northeastern Cambodia.
“Ratanakkiri is known as being a funnel through which a lot of wildlife products go,” said Jack Hurd, program manager for the World Wide Fund for Nature in Cambodia.
China is one of Cambodia’s biggest markets for wildlife, which has made the northeastern province a smuggling gateway. Turtles, snakes and tiger parts, among other things, are regularly gathered in Cambodia’s provinces, transferred through several middlemen and trucked through Ratanakkiri into Vietnam and on to China. Live and dead wildlife are also smuggled into Thailand and shipped to points throughout the world.
For people who get by farming or fishing, poaching can be lucrative work. Some species of turtles sell for hundreds of dollars; a tiger can fetch $2,000. Wildlife is usually smuggled over the hilly and slippery Road 19 which leads from Stung Treng to Ratanakkiri then on to Vietnam, wildlife officials say.
Poachers do not seem overly concerned with concealing their activities. In Kon Mom district recently, two men were seen carrying two baskets of scaly anteaters on their motorbikes, bound for the provincial capital of Banlung. In Krabey Chrum village in Kon Mom, there are at least three restaurants serving wildlife. A popular dish is the scaly anteater.
Ratanakkiri Governor Kham Khoeun acknowledges wildlife is smuggled through his province to Vietnam, but said the smuggling is done in small-scale, clandestine operations. He said cracking down on the trafficking has been hampered by a lack of money.
Poth Sin, administrator of Virachey National Park, also said wildlife trafficking is done mostly through secret, small scale operations and mostly done at night.
But even though the smuggling is done on a small scale, it adds up, Poth Sin said.
“If tougher measures are not taken, wildlife will disappear,” he said.
Poth Sin said a secret outpost in Ratanakkiri’s O’ya-daw district on the Vietnam border collects wild animals before they are exported out of Cambodia.
Because the government has started paying more attention to the content of pickup trucks headed across the border, more wildlife is being smuggled by motorbike, said Hurd of WWF.
“They have been able to stop people, to seize wildlife products,” Hurd said.
But their work is slow. Of the thousands of pounds of wildlife smuggled each year, little is confiscated by the government.
General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, said the police have made positive steps in confiscating wildlife and said officers who take bribes should be purged. “If they get paid off by letting wildlife be smuggled, they are not policemen,” he said. “The ministry cannot allow the policemen to act like that.”
As a member of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna, Cambodia has agreed not to import or export certain species of endangered animals. In addition to these species, Cambodia can add to the list of animals that cannot be exported.
Following the law, however, is not always easy.
“There’s a lack of clarity of who is supposed to be doing what under what law,” Hurd said.
There are inconsistencies in various laws and subdecrees about what animals can and cannot be traded and who is responsible for enforcement.
The main responsibility for controlling the wildlife trade falls on the wildlife protection office in the Ministry of Agriculture. But the Ministry of Environment, the customs department, the military and border police also have a part in stopping wildlife smuggling.
“Sorting out those responsibilities has proven to be difficult,” Hurd said.
WWF has been doing workshops in Ratanakkiri to raise awareness on wildlife trade, helping local officials devise a way to curb the trafficking. Today, the World Bank is expected to announce a project to further protect Virachey National Park. Wildlife officials here are awaiting the passage of the draft wildlife law, now being considered by the government.
“In the absence of the law, you can paste together a strategy to do something,” Hurd said. “But the law would be very helpful.”
Once the law is passed, Cambodian authorities will have to make the law work, the hardest part.
“There are a lot of laws in this country,” Hurd said. “But implementing the law is the difficult thing.”
(Additional reporting by Brian Mockenhaupt)