Eco-Warriors, Poachers Battle in Cambodia

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic Ultimate Explorer
June 6, 2003
This story also airs Sunday June 8, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on National
Ultimate Explorer.

In parts of Cambodia, the struggle against poaching has become an armed conflict. The nation's extensive forests were somewhat protected during the decades-long civil war because people feared to enter this refuge of the vicious Khmer Rouge. Tigers, clouded leopards, rare bird species, and countless other exotic species enjoyed a relatively unmolested existence.

But now the forests and their wildlife are under siege by embattled people desperate to survive from week to week. In this beautiful but troubled country naturalist and Ultimate Explorer correspondent Nick Baker discovered a more complex issue than he bargained for. It's a thorny dilemma with no obvious answers.

Eco-Warriors Fight Uphill Battle

Cambodia is not without protections for wildlife. The country has a national park history dating to the 1920s—although war ravaged the system. In 1993 some 23 protected areas were established that covered over 15 percent of the country. More have been added in succeeding years—but such paper protection must often be backed up on the ground.

While Cambodia's forests are extensive for this part of the world they are far from limitless. And human pressure is starting to take a serious toll.

Baker spent several weeks in the field with WildAid, a nongovernment organization that has adopted military-style tactics in an effort to preserve Cambodia's wild places and their animal inhabitants. Using intelligence information, the group conducts raids of restaurants and other establishments suspected of involvement in the wildlife trade—not exactly familiar operations to the average environmentalist.

Such trade in animals is a longstanding practice that is technically illegal but quite loosely enforced. While WildAid and others break up trading operations and return some animals to the wild, the practice likely continues on an enormous scale.

The rangers also take to the forests to track down an even more troubling problem—illegal logging. Tree by tree loggers are decimating the forests and their inhabitants. The biggest prize is "black wood" for which there is a booming market in neighboring Vietnam.

WildAid troops are heavily armed, and sometimes the poachers are as well. It's a recipe for danger and—potentially—more trouble. "I can see this thing escalating into an arms race," Baker told National Geographic News. "That's how they start. People arm themselves to fight poachers and the poachers up the ante, and it goes on. Before you know it people will be dying out here again over a different issue."

Baker says he arrived in Cambodia with preconceived notions of himself as an irresolute defender of the environment. But he confesses conflicted emotions when confronted with the desperation of people trying to survive by utilizing the only thing left to them—the resources of the forest.

According to World Bank statistics the country's annual per capital income is only U.S. $290. A recent World Bank poverty assessment indicated that 36 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and that 90 percent of that group are found in rural areas.

The economic distress limits non-poaching alternatives, and forces many to the forests despite outreach and education efforts that stress environmental conservation.

Wildlife rehabilitator Nick Marx recognizes the challenges of facing conservation without viable alternatives, something WildAid tries to stress in addition to its military-style patrols. "I think basically that wildlife has always been considered food or something to be traded," he told Baker at WildAid's Cambodian headquarters. "In a poor country there have to be alternatives to that before you can actually make a difference…actually eradicate the trade in wildlife. You have to give them something else. I guess old habits die hard."

In many cases those old habits aren't dying at all. Nick Baker was left with a sadness for the forests, their wildlife, and even for many of the perpetrators themselves. He sees a very complex issue with no obvious solutions. "If someone took away everything that you own, what would you do?" he asked. "You'd do what they're doing."

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