ta ok village, Botum Sakor District, Koh Kong Province – When Kim Sambath was 8 years old, an angry water hen pecked at his face, blinding his left eye.
It would make sense if Sambath hunted birds today, but that’s not the case. This month he began his post as a hunter of hunters, the leader of an anti-poaching patrol working for the Ministry of Environment that stalks the woods and mangrove swamps of Botum Sakor National Park in Koh Kong.
It’s protecting rare birds, not seeking vengeance for his childhood loss, that drives Sambath now.
“I don’t have a lot of experience, but I’m really committed to this work,” he said. “I like it.”
There’s not a lot to like. For $70 a month—just slightly more than the minimum pay at most garment factories—Sambath and his crew of four to five rangers spend days on the trail. Living conditions are rough, the swamp unforgiving.
The rangers spend most of their time outside of villages, where the poachers and loggers are.
So it came as a relief when Sambath and his men, on the first day of their first assignment earlier this month, found themselves camped not in the wild, but on the dock of a village chief. They slept on the planks accompanied by the lingering smell of brine, diesel and river muck.
Sleeping between broken-down engines and discarded fish scales may not be ideal, but at least there was electricity to stave off the dark of the jungle, a roof to eat under, and water for a quick bath at bedtime.
They had traveled by boat to get here; soon they would be humping through the swamps wearing packs laden with hammocks, tarpaulins, mosquito nets, cans of fish, bags of rice, plastic sandals, pots, pans, first-aid kits, a digital camera, disks, batteries, a GPS unit, more batteries, cigarettes, more cigarettes and extra clothes.
Their weapons not yet issued, Sambath and his team from the Ministry of Environment went on a public relations tour for their first assignment. They met villagers and told them about the environmental laws that rangers would be maintaining.
Sambath is 24 years old. That’s a tough age to be in command, especially when traditional Cambodian culture compels the young to respect their elders. (Before the patrols were arranged, the leaders were chosen. There were some expected grumbling from the older men on the choice of younger men to lead the teams.)
Still, during his two weeks of training at a WildAid ranger course, he had stood out, showing enthusiasm for conservation work and a penchant for leadership.
“We ran a selection course,” said Paul Miles, an adviser to WildAid, which trains Ministry of Environment officials to protect the wilds through patrols, arrests and villager education.
WildAid helped establish the ranger patrol, and pays $50 of Sambath’s $70 monthly salary.
Candidates were put through two weeks of strenuous exercise, leadership training, navigation and environmental law training. “Runs, physical fitness, unarmed combat—that sort of thing,” Miles said. “It’s nice to see someone naturally slide into the role.”
The responsibility now resting on Sambath’s shoulders is nothing less than the survival of Cambodia’s wildlife along the coastal estuaries in Botum Sakor, a rich fishery and sealife breeding ground.
Enemies abound here for animal and ranger alike. Poachers, bandits, fishermen with explosives and everyday ignorance all conspire against Cambodia’s natural wonders and those who would protect them.
“In some of the areas we’ll be operating in, there are still mine fields and everything,” Miles said. “And you’ve got your [armed] poachers as well.”
Sambath and his men will carry AK-47s, arrest mandates and information to educate the villagers.
Out here, deep in the mangroves, anything can happen. Most of the uniformed police or soldiers idling along the streets of the province’s coastal towns are either “a waste of space” or “bandits who don’t have any other clothes,” Miles said.
Out here, Sambath and his men must rely on themselves.
“We haven’t had any major conflicts,” Miles said. That’s not counting the ranger patrol that was nearly hit by a hand grenade earlier this year that was apparently aimed at the rangers. No one was hurt, Miles said.
It’s unlikely the peace will last, though. Market pressures that drive the poachers into the woods in the first place can push the cost of a tiger to $1,000. Illegal loggers spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars for their chainsaws, “so you can see how they would be willing to fight to protect or keep whatever they’ve got,” Miles said.
Still, ranger Neang Sakhan, 39, the oldest member of Sambath’s team, said he has no problem with the dangers.
“Even if my team leader is young and has little experience, I will try to give ideas to him and explain to him what he does not understand.”
“I have been here for more than 10 years, and I know this are very well. I have seen much destruction, such as poaching, illegal logging and fishing, so I was very disheartened, and I did not know how to stop it,” he said. “But now I have a chance to work as a park ranger, and I think this is a good chance for me to take part in cracking down on poaching, illegal logging and illegal fishing in this park.”
The team stepped into Ta Ok village earlier this month to survey the area. Ta Ok will soon see a ranger station built, so Sambath and his team will not have to sleep outside every night. While on patrol, they will still rely on hammocks, mosquito nets and tarpaulins, but at least they will have a headquarters to return to every 15 days.
In Ta Ok, Sambath’s first job was to hold an educational meeting with leaders in the area. Eight villagers showed up to the meeting, and Sambath began his first of many appeals to villagers:
“If the forest is gone,” he told them, “we will lack rain, and that brings about a bad future for our children. So poaching using batteries to electrocute fish and producing charcoal is banned.”
Everyone will be educated, he said, after which the rangers will start arresting people and confiscating their equipment. Low level law-breakers will have to sign a contract promising not to break the law again. Big time criminals will go to jail.
The villagers reacted strongly to Sambath’s first foray into public speaking: They finally had someone to complain to. The numbers of fish and crab are decreasing, they said.
“Now people from other districts come to fish in our areas and they use illegal equipment, especially batteries to electrocute fish,” said Ta Ok Village Chief Pen Cheng, a wisp of an old fisherman with no hair and baked skin. “Our people here could not catch more fish, crabs and shellfish.”
Sambath patiently explained to the villagers that he and his patrols were here to stop those kinds of things. When the meeting concluded, the villagers shook hands with the rangers and filed out of the house, down muddy paths to their own homes.
It was before 10 am, but the sun had come out strong. The mist was gone and the mangrove was fully awake. For the next two weeks, it would be the same thing for Sambath and his crew.
When they have their weapons, and villagers have been warned, they will sneak through the woods and swamps, looking to get the drop on some unsuspecting logger or poacher.
“If we altogether do not protect the natural resources, they will be destroyed soon, and our next generations will face difficulties in making their livings,” he said.
After he spoke, he went to the end of the dock. One of his team was trying to learn to row a small canoe, much to the mirth of the village chief’s wife.
Sambath called him in and helped him disembark. Then he himself hopped in, nearly tipped into the bay, and righted himself. In no time he was stroking around the bay, having a look around his new, soon-to-be base of operations.
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