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A look into life in the wild with Cambodia’s rangers

Taing Rinith / Khmer Times Share:
Patrolling rangers on a boat in Ta Chan River of Botum Sakor National Park. KT/Taing Rinith

A job that requires spending your days and nights in the forest protecting the creations of Mother Nature and fighting evil poachers and loggers on a daily basis may sound adventurous to nature lovers and Tarzan wannabes alike. However, only the forest rangers truly understand how risky their job is. In Cambodia, rangers are putting their lives on the line each and every day to preserve the beautiful wildlife for the upcoming generation, but are they being appreciated enough? Taing Rinith tries to answer this question by hearing from the rangers themselves,
in light of world Ranger Day today, which annually commemorates rangers that have been injured or killed in the line of duty.

On a peaceful morning, down a track in the biggest biological park in Cambodia, Koh Kong’s Botum Sakor National Park, a group of men in grey uniforms armed with rifles and Swiss knives are hiding behind several huge trees. These men are the park rangers, waiting to catch a poacher who, according to their informants, is travelling this way.

After a few hours of waiting, they see that a motorbike, old enough almost to fall apart, coming towards them. A man is driving it and behind his back is a carcass of roe deer, still warm and bleeding. When the poacher is about 10 metres away, the rangers suddenly jump in front of him. The man falls, but he is still strong enough to run away and escape, leaving the bike and game behind. The ranger brings the “evidence” back to their station.

“He ran away, leaving everything behind because he thought he would go to prison if we arrested him, but in fact, we do not always put people in jail because we know that some of them are local people who hunt or trap wild animals to survive,” says So Tith, 51, one of the rangers.

“When we catch them for the first time with small game, we just educate them on why we need to protect these animals and ask them to sign a contract promising they will never poach again.”

Tith has been a forest ranger for 16 years after he was transferred from the army to the Ministry of Environment. For a man who has spent most of his life in the forest, it is a perfect job for him, although, he only earns around $250 per month and has to live apart from his wife and two children in Kampot town.

“To be honest, we do not have anything to spend the money we earn from here,” Tith says. “We grow our own vegetables, raise our own chickens at the station and catch fish from the river,” Tith says. “Also, I am not used to living in a city or town. I cannot stay there for more than a day.”

Every day, Tith and his teammates patrol the national park, remove countless traps and arrest poachers and illegal loggers to lower wildlife crimes in the area. But at the same time, whenever they are on duty, their lives and wellbeing are always at risk. There are so many times that they have been attacked by poachers with handmade
guns, which Tith says “have
the ability to trigger five shots at the same time”.

“Sometimes, we are attacked and wounded by poachers and illegal loggers. It is hard for us to shoot back,” Tith says. “We are authorised to hold and use guns but most of the time, we can only shoot in the air.”

Living so remotely from the urban areas, the rangers also find it hard to go to the hospital when they are sick or bitten by poisonous snakes. However, Tith says he and his teammate will not quit because of “our love for nature”.

A forest ranger with one of the handmade guns seized from a poacher. KT/Taing Rinith

This sentiment was shared by Chum Sokheng, a 50-year-old forest ranger stationed at Chipat commune, also in Koh Kong. Sokheng used to be a poacher but later sought redemption when he was arrested in 2000 and joined Natural Resource Protection Group (NRPG), an environment NGO founded by Chut Wutty, a Cambodian environmental activist who was shot dead at Veal Bei Point in Mondol Seima while escorting two female journalists from The Cambodia Daily near a protected forest in Koh Kong.

“I became a forest ranger to cleanse my sins which I committed after killing so many wild animals. The death of Brother Wutty has also encouraged me to work harder to protect wildlife,” Sokheng said.

Sokheng said in the area, the number of poaching and illegal logging cases have gone down in the past few years, but the reason for that, he claims, is because of “the lack of animals to hunt and trees to cut down”.

“We work so hard and risk our lives every day, but our force is very limited,” he says. “As long as there are buyers of wild meats and parts, hunters will still kill animals to fulfill the demand.”

Reports about the attack by poachers or illegal loggers on rangers are not unusual in Cambodia. The latest cases reported by Khmer Times took place in June when a group of unidentified persons opened fire on government rangers on patrol in Siem Pang Wildlife Sanctuary in Stung Treng Province.

Siem Pang district police chief Colonel Chin Eng said the attackers, who used handmade rifles, were most likely a gang of poachers either from local communities or Laos, who enter the protected area to hunt wild animals.

“This is not the first time we have been attacked,” Colonel Eng says. “The authorities are now conducting an investigation to identify the attackers.”

However, Cambodia is in need of more forest rangers
as its wildlife is currently in “state of despair”, says Allan Michad, a British wildlife conservationist and photographer living in Cambodia for almost 20 years.

“The problem is there are so many powerful people in areas who pretty much can do what they want, which makes it hard for conservationists and rangers to protect wildlife,” Michaud says, adding that some animals in the Kingdom’s forest, including tigers, are now extinct with many others on the brink.

According to the Wildlife Alliance, its patrolling rangers have seized more than 700 firearms from poachers since 2002 and thousands of poorly assembled homemade guns, which are capable of firing only one round at a time.

In the past 18 months, rangers removed 32,322 traps in the Kingdom’s protected areas and wildlife sanctions and have rescued 747 wild animals, says a report from the Ministry of Environment.

Despite all the risk they are taking, Tith, Sokeng and several other rangers tell Khmer Times they feel their work is “underappreciated”.

“Usually, rangers like us are not really respected although we work hard in dangerous environments,” Tith says. “Very few people care about our wellbeing and safety.”

“I wish people would understand our work and help us simply by stopping consuming, selling and buying wild meat and parts,” Sokheng says. “This ecosystem belongs to everyone and it cannot be the rangers’ obligation alone to protect them.”

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