The Cambodian government is currently considering capturing 1,000 macaque monkeys from around the Tonle Sap lake and exporting them to a primate breeding center in Vietnam.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries will sell at least 1,000 monkeys to Vietnam if a study of the monkey population conducted by the Department of Forestry and Wildlife finds that the plan is viable, said Chhun Sareth, undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Agriculture.
“If there are enough monkeys,” he said, “we will approve [their] capture and export.”
But it is unclear how the planned export of monkeys reconciles with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s blanket decree in January 1999 prohibiting the illegal transport and export of Cambodian wildlife.
The Council of Ministers has refused to approve the sale until the study of the monkey population is completed, said Sun Hean, deputy director of the Wildlife Protection office at the Department of Forestry and Wildlife.
As for whether the transport will defy the Hun Sen decree, Chan Sarun, forestry adviser to Hun Sen said “It will be illegal to export wildlife, but it could depend on the decision of the Council of Ministers whether or not it will allow the export.”
The potential transport of monkeys exemplifies the problems Cambodia faces in regulating and controlling the wildlife trade. Laws are weak and unclear. Jurisdictions overlap, causing confusion and inaction. Even the Hun Sen decree proclaiming that no wildlife will be transported has loopholes.
For at least a decade, conservationists have been pushing for comprehensive legislation to protect Cambodia’s wildlife, but a lack of money and disagreement between ministries has slowed the process. There are also inconsistencies in the existing laws and sub-decrees about which animals can and can not be traded, adding to the confusion.
“There’s a lack of clarity of who is supposed to be doing what under what law,” said Jack Hurd, program manager for World Wide Fund for Nature.
If the transport of monkeys is approved, the macaques will be sent to a monkey breeding center in Vietnam that currently holds approximately 10,000 monkeys. The center made a request for the monkeys to the Ministry of Agriculture in January. The 1,000 Cambodian macaques will be used to breed with monkeys already at the center, officials said.
One macaque monkey sells for around 40,000 riel, or $10.
The macaque—specifically the long-tailed macaque—is listed as a “globally near-threatened” species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, said Colin Poole, country director for Wildlife Conservation Society. The macaque monkey also appears in Appendix II of the Convention for the International Trade of Endangered Species, which means that the trade or sale of this monkey must be “highly regulated,” Poole said.
With the Appendix II ranking in the CITES listing, the Cambodia government must obtain a CITES permit before the Ministry of Agriculture sells or transports the monkeys. To acquire the permit, the government first must study the macaque population.
The ranking of “globally near- threatened” is the lowest level designated for a threatened species, Poole said. In addition, he said the long-tailed macaque is the most common monkey in Cambodia.
“This [the sale of monkeys to Vietnam] has been a long-running story for at least a year,” Poole said. Vietnamese companies want monkeys from Cambodia since they are cheaper and easier to acquire than macaque monkeys in Vietnam, Poole said.
“Cambodia has often legally or illegally sold or transported wildlife abroad,” Poole said. He said last year, Cambodia shipped 300 macaque monkeys to Vietnam.
Sun Hean said this does not conflict with Hun Sen’s order because they are doing this project “legally.”
Since the Department of Forestry and Wildlife will carry out a formal examination of the monkey population in Tonle Sap, Sun Hean said they are following the guidelines set by the CITES listing.
A formal study was not conducted when the 300 monkeys were sent to Vietnam last year because the amount would not have impacted the Tonle Sap area like the extraction of 1,000, Sun Hean said.
“If there are too many monkeys in the area, they will eat the crops of the people,” he added.
Conservation groups say the current monkey project under consideration is a sign of progress. For example, Hurd said the possible sale and transport of these monkeys would depend on whether the macaques are an “approved substance for trade” and if the deal has gone through the proper, official channels.
“Hun Sen’s decree is not grounded in any policy statement,” Hurd said. “It was a statement of power by the Prime Minister, so it should be respected, but there is no actual law prohibiting the sale of wildlife.”
With the correct CITES permit, the sale is not illegal, Poole said. “It sounds like they [the ministry handling the transport] are going through the correct process and conducting the right studies, so I think that’s a step in the right direction,” he said.
The monkeys would likely be collected with the help of villagers.
Although the Ministry of Environment keeps a list of animals which can or can’t be sold, transported or killed, villagers often times don’t distinguish between wildlife that is permissible to hunt and that which is not.
This only increases to the confusion regarding wildlife protection in Cambodia and multiplies the work of the government and NGOs.
“The local people would know the distinction if they were educated in which species where acceptable to capture,” Poole said.
“They have different names for the various monkeys around Tonle Sap, so [villagers] can tell [each species or subspecies] apart. The work comes in teaching them which are endangered or not,” he said.
Suon Phalla, of the Department of Forestry and Wildlife, said teaching villagers is the best way to keep them from hunting.
“Education is the first priority to make the villagers, especially the hunters, understand the importance of wildlife,” he said. “Some people understand it, but they still hunt.
“It takes time,” he said.