National Geographic Today
Cloaked in camouflage, a Cambodian ranger kneels down, sinking into the heavy brush of the rain forest. He silently raises his hand, holding up two fingers; two poachers are spotted ahead. A slight rustle indicates his fellow rangers moving into formation behind him, preparing for an ambush. They ready the unloaded machine guns slung over their shoulders.
Today's patrol is just a training exercise for the very real war against illegal loggers and poachers plundering Bokor National Park.
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Piles of recently confiscated wood surround Bokor's nearby park headquartersa modest smattering of huts on the southern border of the park. Yuthearith Chey, the park director, says it's a fraction of what's illegally hauled out of this rain forest every day.
"There are no less than 100 people, 100 criminals, inside Bokor park every day," says Chey.
Until recently, a lack of funding left Bokorlike all Cambodia's national parksvirtually unprotected, ringing with chainsaws and the sound of snapping snares. A U.S.-based group called WildAid stepped in to change that, providing funding, supplies, and training to get armed rangers into the field.
WildAid is knee deep in wildlife crisis spots around the globe: picking up the tab for programs protecting Siberian tigers in Russia; buying black rhino habitat in Swaziland; and battling the illegal shark fin trade in the Galapagos marine park. WildAid's goal in Cambodia is to help rebuild the national park system after decades of civil war.
Rampant Illegal Logging
"Cambodia is a country being reborn," explains Peter Knights, executive director and co-founder of WildAid. "Both their human and physical infrastructures were completely decimated by decades of chaos. Now they're starting from scratch. All of their laws are being rebuilt from the ground up, not just those for wildlife."
Cambodians began struggling to their feet after a UN peace agreement in 1991. The country's shattered political and legal systems left their forests vulnerable to illegal loggers and poachers from around the globe. As peace settled uneasily on Cambodia, international black market traders set their sights on the country's natural resources.
A World Bank-funded study of Cambodia's timber industry in 1997/98 found 95 percent of its lumber was cut illegally. The country was being stripped of its resources; Cambodians left with almost nothing to show for the loss. That's when international alarm bells sounded.
"When we arrived in Cambodia three years ago, we interviewed the ministries involved in park and wildlife protection to find out where they wanted help," explains Suwanna Guantlett, another co-founder of WildAid and president of the Cambodia office. "Government officials were very clear: There were a lot of studies being conducted on the problems, but there was no direct field protection."
"Basically WildAid is filling a niche there," says David Ferguson, who runs the Asia branch of the International Conservation Division at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "Cambodia doesn't have the personnel or funding to enforce their wildlife laws. So they started asking for help from the outside."
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