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The Cowboys of the Mekong

Aisha Down / Khmer Times Share:
The Koh Pdao River Guards prepare to go out on patrol. KT Photo: Aisha Down

KRATIE (Khmer Times) – The calls almost always come at night. Three or four times a month, the mobile phone of Koh Pdao’s river guard outpost will ring. A villager has spotted illegal fishermen somewhere along a 10-kilometer stretch of brushy island shore and wants them caught. 

In the minutes that follow, Noun Bunna and four companions will note the caller’s general location, don uniforms, and board two long-tail boats to take them across the waters. Their task: to find and apprehend illegal fishermen.

These five men, stationed near the southern tip of the Mekong River’s longest island, are a part of the river guards, a group set up by the Dolphin Commission in 2006. In 2013 it was put under the auspices of the Fisheries Administration, with the support of the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF). 

Together with 63 more men at 16 other outposts, they are responsible for patrolling a 180-kilometer stretch of the river, beginning at Koh Trong – opposite the provincial capital – and ending at the border with Laos in Stung Treng. 

Threats, Insults & Curses

“It is difficult work,” says Mok Ponlork, provincial deputy chief of the Fisheries Administration. “Up to 70 percent of people in these communities are fishermen – they depend on fish for their livelihood. Because of this, the river guards have trouble doing work in their own communities. They are afraid people will hate them.”

Indeed, says Samnang Keo, WWF’s director of the river guards, certain outposts have received threats this year, etched on wood and left near the doors of the outposts. Other poachers, feeling the threat to their livelihoods, have scrawled insults and curses on buildings in villages with river-guard outposts. 

The river guards persist, however, in protecting the nearly 80 dolphins that are clinging to survival in the pools, rapids and floating forests of the river. Illegal fishing is partly to blame for their low numbers. 

“A lot of dolphins were dying from 2002 to 2005,” explains Poy Vanna, a community fisheries leader at Anlung Svay. “People would bring them for us to see. Some had the marks of gillnets strangling them.”

Threats are not the only dangers river guards face. Poaching on the Mekong River is lucrative.

Because of the money involved, and the dangers as well – a three- to five-year prison term awaits convicted poachers – illegal fishermen are slippery and dangerous to apprehend, says the WWF’s Mr. Keo.

“Sometimes they fight us,” says Mr. Bunna. “We have had poachers pull up beside us in a huge boat, 10 of them, carrying knives.” 

“They tried to slice off our fingers,” river guard Khieu Kein recalls.

Shock and Dynamite 

“You can get 70 to 80 kilograms of fish per night if you electroshock them,” says Siem Sokhin at Koh Pdao. He demonstrates how it is done. Two wires are attached to the terminals of a car battery and their ends are put into the river. A net is held beneath the wires to catch the stunned fish.

“You can recognize shocked fish at markets all around here,” he explains. “They have broken fins, and their spines are contorted.”

Poached fish are often transported the next day to markets in Vietnam and Laos, says Mr. Ponlork of the Fisheries Administration. 

Further north, where many still fish with handmade dynamite, the river guards have to handle dynamite attacks. “I don’t worry so much about the dynamite fishermen,” says Sen Kosal, a 19-year-old river guard at the Anleung Svay outpost just below the Lao border. “It has to have a long fuse to explode underwater. If they throw it onto our boat, I think we could put it out before it blew us up.” 

“They say they’ll be okay,” says the WWF’s Mr. Keo, but he admits that he worries about them.

Military Protection

Because of the dangers, each river guard boat now includes a volunteer soldier or policeman. Mr. Bunna, who started in 2014, is the policeman of Koh Pdao’s outpost. 

“They registered me because they wanted to have a man who could carry a gun,” he explains. “The illegal fishermen weren’t afraid at all, and it wasn’t legal for anyone else at the post to have a weapon. Now that there are soldiers and policemen on the boats, the poachers are more afraid.”

There are fewer confrontations than before, agrees Mr. Keo, but the job is not much easier. 

“The poachers aren’t really afraid of us,” says river guard Mr. Sokhin. “When we go out to work, they don’t shock the fish. When we come back from work, then they start shocking them.”

Mr. Kein explains that the poachers have a network. “We get three to four calls a month,” he says. “But someone in the village calls the poachers, too, and tells them we’re coming. We don’t know who tells the illegal fishermen about our movements. But they know us.”

“They just sit on the bank and watch us,” says Mr. Sokhin says, laughing ruefully.

Even when the river guards are able to get poachers in their sights, catching them is another story.

Faster Boats

“When they see us coming, they start speeding away really fast,” Mr. Sokhin explains. “Their boats are much newer, and faster. We follow them, but a lot of the time if we get close they drop their equipment into the water, and they head into their village.”

“We can arrest less than 50 percent of the cases we find,” explains Mr. Keo. “We have to be very careful to collect all of the evidence. If they drop all their equipment, all the evidence, then we cannot take them in. The court will say, ‘How come you arrested them?’”

He says that so far this year the river guards have had 10 cases when poachers they sighted were able to get away. 

Near Laos, the situation becomes even more difficult. “Most illegal fishermen come in from Laos,” says Mr. Kosal. “And when we start to pursue them, they just cross the border. Then we don’t necessarily have the right to chase them. We have to converse with Laotian officials, the village chiefs there.”

Racing to Laos

Last year, Mr. Kosal says, three dynamite fishermen escaped into Laos and were returned by the Laotian police. The Khmer police did not press charges that time. Often those who cross the border simply get away.

“Khmers and Laotians both have conservation workers,” says Mr. Kosal. “But on the Laotian side… the conservation workers are also fishermen. They put out gillnets themselves.”

The border sees a lot of illegal fishing. Poy Vanna says that in 2015 alone, there have been at least seven times he’s heard the sound of dynamite fishermen. “There may be more, but we’re not sure of it.” 

Mr. Kosal and the river guards have received a number of calls about shock fishermen, but have caught none of them.

Meanwhile, just five dolphins remain in the waters just below the border. “There were 20 in 1993,” said Mr. Vanna. 

$50 a Month

The animals inspire a reverence that makes the guards persist despite the dangers, low pay, and a difficult schedule. 

“Only two river guards have ever quit their jobs. One man was promoted to a higher rank in the police, and one had to move with his family away from the river,” says Mr. Keo.

The rest work long, sporadic hours. Koh Pdao’s river guards estimate that they work thirty-five hours a week, often late at night. 

“Our salary isn’t enough for this – just $50 a month,” says Siem Sokhin.

Mr. Ponlork agrees. “They have $50 a month, and the WWF contributes a food allowance, per diem,” he says. “But they are exhausted. I do my best to lobby for a higher salary for them. Right now, they must have their wives and children work very hard.”

No one on Koh Pdao’s outpost has any intention of quitting, however. “They do it for their hearts, for their grandchildren,” says Mr. Ponlork. 

“These are rare animals,” agrees Mr. Kein. “And we can still see them, here. We don’t want them to be lost before our children can see them too.”

Additional Reporting by Mon Chimmor

Seng Long, Noun Bunna, Siem Sokhin, Khieu Kein, and Yua Khoun in front of the Koh Pdao River Guard outpost. KT Photo: Aisha Down

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