There are certainly tigers in Cambodia: The full skins for sale at markets in and around Phnom Penh are evidence of that.
But just how many live ones there are and where exactly they live are unknowns.
Tiger conservation in Cambodia is in its infancy, and until more studies are conducted, conservationists cannot design specific conservation plans, said Colin Poole, Cambodia’s director for the Wildlife Conservation Society.
“We’re literally just starting,” Poole said.
A recent expedition organized by Poole, the Conservation Society and the World Wide Fund for Nature was a first step. But the expedition, the first of its kind to use infrared camera traps in Cambodia, came up with few answers.
Eleven cameras were set in a Virachey National Park valley in Ratanakkiri province in the northeast, but after a month in the woods, the cameras failed to detect a single tiger. Or a poacher, for that matter.
But Tony Lynam, a renowned tiger expert for Conservation Society who led the 10-day trip, said the expedition was a success in other ways.
For example, the $10,000 expedition trained more than a dozen Cambodian officials on tiger surveying techniques. The officials—from the ministries of Environment and Agriculture—learned to set the camera traps and interpret the data, Lynam said.
Their increased knowledge of conservation methods will be used to draft a subdecree that strengthens wildlife protection law, said Lay Khim, director of the protected areas office in the Environment Ministry.
And such an expedition was not even possible until this year, after rangers, stations and other organizational support were established in Virachey, officials said.
“We couldn’t have done this a year ago,” said Jack Hurd, regional director of the World Wide Fund for Nature, who helped coordinate the trip.
The expedition was difficult from the outset.
Members had to push through unexpected bamboo stands and withstand rains from the wet season, and half of the group was sent back when food and water became scarce, Lynam said.
The logistical difficulties along the way underscored the need for more training in a country where conservation techniques are relatively new.
Ultimately, the goal is for the Cambodians to take over the field studies.
More thorough camera-trap studies are planned for next dry season, Poole said—mostly likely in Ratanakkiri or in Koh Kong province in the southwest.
Meanwhile, some believe that time is running out for the tiger.
Tigers are disappearing from Cambodia at the rate of as many as 100 per year, maintains Hunter Weiler, a tiger consultant for the Cat Action Treasury, a conservation group in Phnom Penh.
“There’s a limited window of opportunity here,” Weiler said. “We’re all sitting around wringing our hands. Meanwhile, that giant sucking sound you hear is the skin and bones of the tiger leaving Cambodia.”
Relative peace and stability have opened the country to more study, but poaching and, to a lesser degree, land encroachment are taking a toll on the tigers, Poole agreed.
The demand for tiger skins in Thailand and for bones and fangs in Vietnam and China is at the heart of the problem.
Individual skins can bring as much as $750 to a poacher, and the bones and fangs go for as much as $250 per kilogram, Weiler said.
Curbing the demand in a country where farmers can make up to $2,000 just for killing a cat will be difficult, conservationists agree.
A limited number of rangers, who make few arrests, provide little in the way of deterrence for poachers.
Weiler empathized with the recent expedition’s challenges, noting that the heavy emphasis on training and the large number of participants meant not getting to the most likely tiger sites. He also said unmarked land mines—used by poachers to kill wildlife —may have kept the expedition out of tiger habitats.
When the expedition returned without tiger photos, “that wasn’t a surprise to many people,” Weiler said.