New Approach Shakes Up Conservation Scene

In a country where senior officials and military are among the bigger players in the illegal wild­life trade, authorities fear they lack the money, the muscle and the political clout to take on the traffickers.

But the backers of a proposed Forestry Department program, sponsored by the US state of California-based conservation group WildAid, think they have what it takes to make a dent in the problem.

The political backing was on show last week at a conference organized to debut the program.

Instead of the middleweight politicians and low-ranking bu­reau­cratic seat-warmers who generally make up environment seminars, the conference was packed with political stars, including the biggest star of them all, Prime Minister Hun Sen.

The muscle will come in the form of an elite 10-man team of forestry officials and military police, specially equipped and trained to hunt down and arrest the worst offenders.

And WildAid appears to have the money for such a venture.

While other wildlife groups wait for their donors to consider proposals and come up with the funds, WildAid’s sponsors don’t apply those constraints, said Suwanna Gauntlett, a pharmaceutical heiress and the group’s director. As head of an organization that prides itself in getting results fast, Gauntlett is able to make judgment calls in the field and put them into practice.

Gauntlett did that during a Phnom Penh wildlife bust organized by the Forestry Depart­ment last year. The sting netted two tigers and the men accused of selling them, but two more cats were still being held by the suspects’ wives.

Fearing there was no other way to rescue the tigers, Gaunt­lett stepped in with a stack of cash—estimated to be several thousand dollars—and bought the animals. Some involved in the operation said a dangerous precedent was being set and the wrong message sent by buying wildlife from dealers.

It’s that kind of unconventional approach that sometimes antagonizes other wildlife groups. Many see Gauntlett, who arrived in Cambodia a little more than a year ago, as a maverick, new to the Cambodian scene and yet reluctant to heed the advice of other experts in the field.

Observers say that reluctance was on show at last week’s wild­life conference. Hun Sen’s attendance should have been a coup for the conservation movement in general, but it was soured for many by the fact that they weren’t invited.

“We were forbidden,” complained one conservationist, who declined to be identified for fear of being accused by his colleagues of divisiveness. Only one environment NGO, Conservation International, attended.

Gauntlett maintained the conference was meant for Cambo­dian officials. She said she didn’t want it to become an “NGO forum,” dominated by foreigners who might stifle a free, frank discussion.

And if her own approach is more aggressive than most, she said, it’s what’s needed to shake things up in Cambodian wildlife law enforcement.

“We have to overcome the mindset of passivity,” she said.

“It’s getting the [police and for­estry officials] in the field to take initiative. There’s a mindset that wildlife confiscation is not their responsibility, that hunters are hunting because they’re poor and shouldn’t be arrested, that middlemen can’t be arrested because they are too powerful.”

The Forestry Department aims to overcome some of those obstacles with the introduction of what Gauntlett calls the “Mobile En­forcement SWAT Team.” Ty Sokhun, director of the Forestry Department, said he expects to finalize the plans and sign off on the deal by June.

According to the plan, the team will be made up of four forestry officials and six military police, a hand-picked elite that will be paid competitive salaries. Using information gathered by provincial forestry officials, the team will conduct detailed surveillance to pinpoint the worst wildlife traffickers. They then will work together to come up with a strategy before making arrests.

The team will not be going after low-level poachers, who depend on hunting to feed their families. “We’re going after the middle­men and the wholesalers, and they are very rich people,” she said.

By eliminating the top players, Gauntlett said, Cambodia can make substantial inroads into the problem.

But some say taking on major traffickers is fraught with potential dangers.

“Are we going to have our MPs involved in shoot-outs with MPs involved in the wildlife trade?” said Hunter Weiler, a representative of Flora and Fauna Inter­national and a consultant to the government’s tiger conservation program. “Are we going to be arresting provincial governors?”

He points to the experience of Thailand. After a Thai forestry official was killed in a shoot-out with poachers last December, senior forestry officials an­nounced they would wind back aggressive law enforcement. They would instead direct their energies to education programs geared at making the public more sympathetic to conservation.

Crackdowns on traffickers simply weren’t working.

“No matter how much we’ve beefed up our forces, we always lose because the poachers outnumber us,” Deputy Forestry Chief Somchai Piensathaporn told the Bangkok Post at the time.

“We don’t need enforcement training,” Weiler said. “We have it already. The problem is we can’t stand up to those people.”

But Patrick Lyng, chief consultant to the Forestry Department’s Forest Crimes Monitoring Unit, said more training—not less—is what’s needed to make sure arrests can be carried out in relative safety.

It’s not having the training to recognize a dangerous situation that gets people killed, he said. He recalled a forestry official shot to death in Kratie province last July while trying to gather information on illegal logging. The man might not have been killed if he had been trained to identify trouble and get away before it was too late.

Lyng, a retired US forestry agent with more than 20 years experience, warned that zeal without practical know-how is a dangerous mix. He said enforcement is necessary, that “a good law has to have some teeth in it,” but he urged a cautious approach.

“There ain’t a tree out there worth dying for,” he said.

Gauntlett does not rule out the possibility of weapons-safety training, which was part of a WildAid-sponsored training session for forestry officials at Bokor Na­tional Park earlier this year. When asked if training Cambo­dians to use weapons might run at odds with the country’s demilitarization program, Gauntlett smiled.

“There’s no justice without force,” she said

Sun Hean, a one-time Fulbright Scholar at the US University of Minnesota who has done extensive research on Cambodia’s wildlife trade, says traffickers won’t respond to anything but force. With a market value up to $6,000 per tiger, education alone isn’t enough to stop people hunting and selling them.

“Many people say, ‘Oh God, you can’t do it because Cambodia has to stay away from guns,’” he said. “But what is the alternative? You cannot stop the wildlife trade without enforcement.”

(Additional reporting by Van Roeun)





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