Funds Give Boost to Long-Stalled Wildlife Law

For more than a decade, conservationists have been complaining that Cambodia is in urgent need of legislation protecting its endangered wildlife.

But until recently, the process of drafting one was indefinitely stalled.

In an effort to jump-start the pro­cess, the British Embassy announced last week it would put up $22,000 to fund a program or­ga­nized by the Wildlife Con­serva­tion Society and the World­wide Fund for Nature to help the De­partment of Forestry draft the law.

Although still in its early stages, an original draft, which was first floated in 1996, was generally lauded by observers as a step in the right direction.

But despite a promising start, the draft stalled after fierce factional fighting broke out in 1997.

The Forestry Department, which was charged with drawing it up, ran short on money and foreign expertise. The law has been left untouched ever since, said Suon Phalla, an official in the Wildlife Protection Office’s education section who worked on the last draft and will join the team devising a new one.

The existing laws—a few paragraphs in the 1998 forestry law—are two vague and too outmoded to deal adequately with Cambo­dia’s burgeoning illegal wildlife trade, according to Jack Hurd, country director of the WWF.

A subdecree detailing which species are prohibited from being hunted and traded excludes some animals that are endangered, some of which have only recently been discovered in Cambodia, Hurd said.

It includes other animals that are abundant and are commonly hunted and fished here. If those regulations were to be followed to the letter, it would “really hit at the livelihoods and food security of villagers,” Hurd said.

A new law will have to take into account obligations to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, to which Cambodia is a recent signatory, as well as catering to the need to protect wildlife unique to this country, Hurd said.

The forestry law also appears to be contradicted by other laws, including a blanket decree by Hun Sen in January 1999 that prohibits the transport and export of all wildlife,  Hurd said.

There’s no clear delineation of the responsibilities of the many different agencies which will be involved in enforcing the law—from the ministries of agriculture and environment to police, customs officials and park rangers, Hurd said.

“There needs to be one overarching law…so that there is clear policy guidance from the central government,” he said.

Another weakness of the existing law is that the penalties for trafficking—fines of between $2.63 and $263—aren’t an adequate deterrent for violators, who can make several thousand dollars on a single deal.

The law also doesn’t distinguish between low-level violators—a hunter who inadvertently kills the wrong kind of bird, for instance—and major traffickers.

Proposals for new penalties include confiscation of all evidence connected with the crime, which can include vehicles used to transport animals and even private property where they are sold or kept. They also include jail sentences of up to five years for major offenders, Suon Phalla said.

A new law should also make it easier to catch the offenders, wildlife experts said.

The forestry law forbids selling, transporting or killing endangered animals, but it doesn’t prevent people from possessing them.

“If you’ve got a tiger in your back garden, I can’t walk in and arrest you,” said Colin Poole, country director of the WCS.

Violators have to be caught red handed, a difficult task for Cambodia’s ill-equipped and under-trained police, Poole said.

Two busts by the Forest Crimes Monitoring Unit last month illustrate how hard it is for authorities to enforce the law.

In order to make arrests, the FCMU organized two sting operations, a practice common in law enforcement in other countries such as the US but rare in Cambodia.

Although the operations were largely successful, a few things went awry.

On the first sting, the FCMU arrested two alleged traffickers and confiscated two tigers. But two more tigers were still in the hands of the sellers’ wives.

Since possession alone is not a crime, the FCMU discussed organizing another sting, debating whether the wives would take the same bait that had just landed their husbands in jail. Meanwhile a wildlife agency acting independently of the FCMU bought the two tigers.

It was a move FCMU adviser Patrick Lyng, who orchestrated the stings, said was regrettable.

“We’re not here to get involved in the wildlife trade,” he said.

In a bust at a private house in Phnom Penh days later, municipal police working with the FCMU task force let the alleged trafficker walk away from the scene without arresting him. Later they lost the $2,100 undercover agents had paid for the animals. The seller, Ly Huot, had apparently handed the money over to one of his daughters, who then fled.

Police later arrested Ly Huot and recovered the money.

Lyng said the police seemed to misunderstand the point of the sting—to make an arrest—but instead thought their job was merely to collect the animals.

The case underscores what Hurd says will be the next hurdle once a law is prepared. In a country where hunting wildlife is a way of life, the notion that sometimes it’s a crime catches many people—including law enforcers—by surprise.

“We will have to make sure that everyone is aware of what the law is,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Van Roeun)




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