Kong Hean became a Khmer Rouge soldier 21 years ago, at the age of 14, fighting a guerrilla war in the mountains of southwestern Cambodia. He has been hunting tigers, deer and boar for nearly as long. For conservationists searching for wildlife in the Cardamom mountains, this makes him an invaluable member of the expedition.
“We couldn’t do this job without the guides,” says Steven Swan, a mammal researcher.
The best guides can walk through the jungle at night and never lose their way. They know where elephants and tigers walk, where monkeys scamper in the trees.
Kong Hean drinks a cup of water in the morning and one in the late afternoon—never during the day. When he goes to the jungle to hunt—a trip that can last for up to a month—he takes nothing but a hammock and a gun, the same two things he carried as a Khmer Rouge fighter. Food and water he finds in the jungle.
He knows the jungle well, perhaps better than anyone else in the area. Logging companies have offered him up to $800 per month to guide them to the biggest trees, but he declined. He doesn’t like what the logging companies do to his forest, how they try to keep him from hunting there.
Conservationists would like to train hunters like Kong Hean to be rangers, patrolling the forests for poachers and teaching their neighbors about wildlife. “Instead of going into the forest to hunt and collect, they can use this knowledge to save things,” Swan says.
Along with knowledge of the forests and its animals, locals share strongly held beliefs in the mountain spirits. In the central Cardamoms, the mountain protector is named Gay Mao, or Old Woman.
“Hunters are very clever,” says Meng Monyrak of the Ministry of Environment. “If they want wildlife, they will ask Gay Mao.”
Gay Mao keeps the forest in balance, locals say, by sending only old, sick or bad animals to be killed. If hunters offend Gay Mao, they must apologize. “If you do something wrong in the forest and make the spirits mad, you must make an offering and pray,” says Van Chan, a hunter from Thmar Baing.
As the local story goes, Kong Hean acted badly in the forest—though he would not say what he did—and a spirit was sent into a tiger to attack him. He escaped, but had to run through the day for many kilometers.
When the Ministry of Environment plant team came to the Cardamoms, they asked Gay Mao that no tigers, bears or elephants approach them. “We are scared,” says Meng Monyrak.
Khmer Rouge fighters are said to have found favor with Gay Mao because they respected the forest and did not regularly hunt tigers, elephants or monkeys—animals believed to be protected by spirits.
“The Khmer Rouge killed people but they preserved nature. This regime does not kill, but it destroys everything,” says Van Chan, a local guide.
But the conservation ethos apparently has its limits. In Pursat province, villagers in a former Khmer-Rouge area hunt tigers with landmines, placing dead deer on the mines which explode when the bait is dragged away. This blows up the tiger, but the bones can still be retrieved. They sell for $200 per kilogram.
The techniques can be brutal. But as conservationists discovered, the villagers are both practical and hardened. Their stories of life in the mountains range from the fantastic to the disturbing.
On a mountain in the Mount Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary, far from the nearest village, the expedition team was running low on food and discussing how soon they would have to return to base camp. “I guess we’ll all have to put our names in a hat to see who we eat first,” Swan said.
“I’ve had human heart before. It’s good,” said one of the guides, a former Khmer Rouge fighter. He insisted he did not know what he was eating at the time, but only learned later from friends. Swan found the exchange unsettling.