Suspects Snared Along With Tigers, Bears

A mid-morning raid Saturday on a house in downtown Phnom Penh netted three tigers, two sun bears, and two suspected traffickers, the latest bust in a new government crackdown on the illegal wildlife trade.

The raid, on a house on Street 173 near Olympic Market, was the result of a sting operation organized by the Forestry De­partment’s Forest Crimes Moni­toring Unit, said the unit’s senior adviser, Patrick Lyng.

Undercover agents posing as buyers met with wildlife dealers recently and arranged to go to the house and buy three tigers. Sur­veillance later revealed there were also two sun bears at the house.

The arrests comes after a daylight bust on a busy street near Wat Phnom on Thursday that ultimately snared two suspected traffickers and four tigers.

On Saturday, the task force faced the extra challenge of raiding a private house, Lyng said. Current laws forbid authorities to enter private property without a warrant.

The raid had first been planned for Friday, but a delay in paperwork forced the task force to postpone the operation until the following morning.

On Friday, while the Forest Crimes Monitoring Unit waited for Municipal Court and Forestry Department officials to sign the warrant, the buyers negotiated with the increasingly antsy dealers to wait one more day, Lyng said.

Once the buyers made the transaction, at least 20 police waiting on the street outside were supposed to move in, arrest the sellers and confiscate the animals.

But the raid, the first of its kind in Cambodia, did not go entirely as planned.

Police first on the scene did not immediately arrest the suspected dealer, and instead turned their attention to the caged animals around the compound.

“He’s going out! He’s going out,” one of the investigators screamed frantically as the suspect, Ly Huot, 67, walked outside and made his way down the street.

Police arrested the man and brought him back to the house. They asked him to empty his pockets, and he produced ID cards and between $500 and $600, mostly in 20 dollar bills.

He did not produce the $2100 in 100 dollar bills that the buyers had just paid him for the tigers.

While authorities loaded the two sunbears onto the back of the truck, Ly Huot called up to neighbors who had gathered on a balcony overlooking the compound: “Get my son. Get my daughters.”

Two women soon appeared on the scene and spoke to the suspect, whom they later said was their father. They then ran out of the compound, with one of them, Ly Nguon Hour, holding a thick bundle of 100 dollar bills.

Alerted by an investigator, two armed police followed the woman onto the street and tried to wrestle the cash out of her clenched fist. She protested that she had made the money selling a motorbike, and after a brief struggle, the police released her.

Ly Nguon Hour then gave the money to the second woman who left the scene on a motorcycle taxi.

“I gave her the money to give to my husband,” Ly Nguon Hour said.

She returned to the compound where her father was being held, and police arrested her.

The suspects were taken to Chamkar Mon police station and interrogated. Deputy District Police Chief Toep Kum said Saturday police would investigate the third woman and try to recover the missing money. On Sunday, police declined to comment on developments in the case.

Under current laws, wildlife traffickers face fines of between $2.63 and $263. There is no prison sentence for them.

A new, tougher wildlife law is about to be drafted, said Men Phymean, director of the Forestry Department’s Wildlife Protection Office. It will take at least three months before the draft is ready to go to the Minister of Agriculture for approval.

Despite some bungling, Lyng said he was delighted by results of the operation. He praised officials and police for working hard on a new and difficult task.

“This is the first time they’ve ever done anything like this,” he said. “There are things that went wrong, but now we can sit down and make it better next time.”

Conservationists also heralded the arrests, saying they show genuine resolve by the government to crack down on the illicit trade.

“It’s going to send a signal that the government is no longer putting up with this,” said Hunter Weiler of Flora and Fauna International.

Investigators say one of the tigers netted Saturday was shipped by road from Prey Veng province in a small wooden box and may have been beaten. It was kept at the house for four to six weeks, without medical treatment or adequate food.

The animal, which is 10 months old, has a severely injured back, and its chances of survival are slim, said Maggie Patterson, a veterinarian at Phnom Tamao Zoo, where the animals from the two sting operations are now being treated.

The other animals, a male and a female tiger cub, both around 8 weeks old, and two young sunbears, are underfed but otherwise in good shape, Patterson said.

With two new sunbears and seven tigers, Phnom Tamao zoo is suddenly coping with an unfamiliar problem—overcrowding. The zoo’s tiger population has suddenly jumped from three to 10.



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