Ultimate Explorer's Nick Baker on Cambodia Poachers

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
June 6, 2003

National Geographic's flagship television series EXPLORER has a new look, a new name, and a new high-energy take on documentary filmmaking. The result is Ultimate Explorer, an hour-long, correspondent- driven series hosted by Lisa Ling.

This Sunday naturalist Nick Baker tags along with eco-warriors on an armed hunt for Cambodia's poachers—and finds a more complex story than he bargained for. Watch Poacher Patrol this Sunday June 8, at 8 p.m. ET/PT. Baker chatted with National Geographic News about his Cambodia assignment, and the thorny dilemma facing people and wildlife in that Southeast Asia nation.

You went to Cambodia to investigate poaching and illegal lumbering in that country—a situation that's being battled in some places with almost military tactics. What's going on there and how bad is the problem?

Cambodia is one of the few places in Southeast Asia that still has a large amount of forest cover. Historically, of course, the country has had a quite rocky past. But when the Khmer Rouge were in power, people weren't going into the forest. The forests received some of the best protection in the world because people were too scared to go into them. With the Khmer Rouge gone the forests opened up and people turned to them to try to survive.

When people are so desperate you can't blame them. If someone took away all of what you own, really everything, what would you do? You'd do what they are doing—you'd go into the woods. I walked into this assignment thinking that I would, as usual, be strictly an ardent defender of conservation. But I ended up feeling very sad for the people. I want the two to coexist. For the fist time in my life, I really can't see an answer.

You visited markets there and could see the fruits of the wildlife trade, animals and animal products, for sale. Is that really the problem, or is deeper?

It's an unknown. Nobody knows what's really going on, the real extent of what's going on. Trading in all wildlife is illegal in Cambodia. People have been stamping down on the trade in wildlife, but it goes on as it always has. These animals are not always the kind of animals we love. Frogs for example are not a species that will provoke an outcry, like monkeys.

But the wildlife we see in the small local markets is not the major problem. Deforestation is the major problem and it's compounding all of the wildlife issues. The raids we did (with the nongovernment organization WildAid) generally had to do with logging. We didn't find a lot of the animal trade—which has been driven underground somewhat.

You went on military-style raids with WildAid, an NGO that's taking the fight to poachers. What impressions did you get of their efforts?

We did travel with WildAid, and we also spoke to some poachers. The conclusion we came to is that the paramilitary style of these eco-warriors results really in just a tiny, tiny number of patrols in a tiny piece of one national park. It's taken three to four years for them to get to the current state and that state is really pretty useless. In some sense it's like people playing soldiers with a justification for it. I mean, they are doing something, and a lot of what they do is very good, but I'm not sure how effective it can be.

Have you ever been in a combat situation? These poacher patrols are armed and the people they encounter can be heavily armed as well.

Continued on Next Page >>


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