The elusive kla trey, or the Cambodian fishing cat, means different things to different people. To members of the generation who have had to live through one of the nation’s darkest periods, it is often considered subsistence in times of scarcity. To fishermen, these cats are a threat to their livelihood, not unlike vermin in a rice field.
To some, it is a matter of pride – a twisted metaphor of humans’ triumph over nature. But to those who hold wildlife diversity close to their heart, this particular species is one of many examples of a worrying trend in Cambodia. The cat, which is listed as ‘vulnerable’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, is in danger of turning into a creature of the past.
As part of its programme to save the species, the Cambodian Fishing Cat Project joined up with celebrity chef Luu Meng, and artist Chhan Dina to save the felines by launching a campaign dubbed ‘Eat Khmer, not Khmer Wildlife’ last Friday in Phnom Penh.
It aimed to be an accessible event. With so many misunderstandings surrounding kla treys, the group wanted to deliver the message across the board, regardless of demographics. The event attracted a diverse crowd – parked outside were Rolls-Royces, tuk tuks, and everything in between. Inside there was a presentation on the cause as well as artworks set against the backdrop of a restaurant with waiters offering cocktails and canapes.
“Kla treys are not only hunted by fishermen whose fishing grounds overlap with the felines’ territory, but also for its meat,” explained the project’s principal investigator, Vanessa Herranz-Munoz.
“While in rural areas they are consumed as sustenance, in urban areas it has evolved into a symbol of status due to this widespread perception that eating bush meat gives [the eater] certain power and health benefits.
“The message that we are trying to get across is that there are always alternatives for everyone – that it is no longer necessary to hunt kla treys,” added Herranz-Munoz. “Especially not when the species in question is vulnerable.”
And this is where Luu Meng and Chhan Dina came in. In keeping with the theme of the night, Meng’s canapes were designed to convey a message – there is no need to kill any exotic wildlife to enjoy a gastronomic experience, or reap health benefits for that matter.
“Through this we aim to educate people that Khmer food is not about eating exotic meat – it is the herbs that define our cuisine,” explained Meng. “However, we can say a thousand words, and it wouldn’t mean a thing without enforcement, which sadly, is still lacking.”
While Meng’s medium is his food, artist Chhan Dina too, has her own.
Through her paintings, she wants Cambodians to be more aware of biodiversity.
“Nine years ago I visited a bird sanctuary and I was truly amazed by the variety,” she said. “I never knew that we had so many bird varieties – not after what happened.”
At first, the mishmash of different styles and textures made little sense – a jumble of surrealistic paintings with cues from what seems to be Dali, while others are extremely abstract and textural. Celebrating diversity, after all, was the whole point of the exhibition.
“If we go to a zoo in Cambodia these days, the majority of the specimens, especially the birds, are from abroad,” she explained.
“Through my work I wanted to show not only Cambodians, but also the rest of the world, that our biodiversity is truly a beautiful thing that needs to be preserved.”
The Cambodian Fishing Cat Project works with Wildlife Alliance’s Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team (WRRT) to help conserve the species. Sightings of kla treys should be reported as soon as possible to WRRT’s hotline at +855 (0) 1250 0094.