A tiger and a small Slow Loris are being transported on a luggage conveyor belt as a child cries in the background—that’s the short video clip that will be shown at Phnom Penh International Airport for the next year.
Along with ads and an exhibition on wildlife trafficking, the video is meant to educate international travelers about the illegal trade in wildlife that has become one of the world’s biggest black markets, accumulating an estimated $10 to $20 billion annually.
Being the home of many endangered species, and coupled with often weak laws and law enforcement, Southeast Asia and its airports have become a major destination for the trafficking of wild animals, NGO Wildlife Alliance said at the opening of the exhibit at Phnom Penh International Airport on Friday.
“We all need to work together to protect Cambodia’s wildlife…and to make the airports a frontline of defense,” said Amy van Nice, international development manager with Wildlife Alliance.
Signs with information about wildlife trafficking have also been installed at major land border crossings such as Bavet and Poipet, Ms. van Nice said.
In past years, wildlife traders have taken a more systematic approach to evade punishment under the 2001 Forestry Law, which contains provisions for punishing trafficking of wildlife with up to 10 years in prison.
“When we started in 2001, traders would transport big amounts, up to 1 ton of wildlife,” said forestry administration officer Heng Kimchhay. “Now, they hire drivers who only transport small amounts, and it is hard to catch,” he said.
Though there are no reliable figures for the amount of wildlife being trafficked, endangered species such as pangolins, clouded leopards, as well as a variety of birds and monkeys have seen their numbers decrease mostly due to the demand of traditional Chinese medicine. Less than 200 tigers are estimated to live in Cambodia today, with some NGOs putting the numbers closer to zero.
As prices for wildlife abroad are commonly 10 times the price of the local market, trafficking cross borders with their illegal cargoes, and planes has become a major means of transport, Mr. Kimchhay said.
“If you can get $10 in Cambodia, you get $100 in Vietnam, and more than $1,000 in the U.S.,” he said.
Animal body parts, especially horns and skins, are most easily smuggled through customs at airports. Eggs are commonly strapped to the body, and for smaller animals, documents are faked to pass them off as domestic pets.
“Live animals are more difficult, they are sedated and sometimes put on ice to keep them calm,” in suitcases, Ms. van Nice said.
So far, there have only been a few major busts of wildlife trafficking at Cambodia’s airports, Ms. van Nice said.
“People believe that it’s easy at the airports here, that no one will catch them and if so, they pay them off. But we think that this will change,” Ms. van Nice said.
As part of the initiative, about 40 customs staff, cargo and baggage handlers and security personnel at the Phnom Penh and Siem Reap airports have been trained in identifying illegal wildlife, which it is hoped will lead to more discovers and arrests in the future.