The elephant is on the road. Last week, it knocked over a minivan. In May, it gored and killed two cows. In December 2011 the bloated carcass of a hunter was discovered deep in the forest, surrounded by elephant prints. A month later, the rangers first see it: a lone adolescent male gorging its way through a 20,000-hectare sugarcane plantation. The elephant stalked the plantation for a month. Its rampage claimed a bamboo house, a motorbike and several telephone poles. Then it disappeared – until a few weeks ago.
“It really doesn’t like big cars and trucks,” Kaspars Čekotins, Wildlife Alliance’s Stung Proat station advisor, says. We pile into a pickup. Dents pepper its steel body; a cracked mirror hangs limply against its side. Čekotins tells us that the elephant attacked the pickup when they first met. So far, only the shattered driver’s window has been replaced.
In the truck’s open bed, three military policemen laugh, shielding the muzzles of their battered AK-47s from a light, cold drizzle. Inside the cab, the mood is tense. Our job, I’m told, will be to put ourselves – our bodies – between the elephant and oncoming traffic. “We have to protect the people from the elephant and the elephant from the people,” Čekotins says. With their crops, animals and lives at risk, many locals want to see the young bull killed.
National Highway 48 is little more than a narrow, paved ribbon linking the border town of Koh Kong with the rest of southern Cambodia. For more than 100km, the thick rolling jungle of the southern Cardamom Mountains lines its sides. The area has been protected since 2004.
Unable to effectively police the Cardamoms alone, the Cambodian government partners itself with several international NGOs. The forests directly north of Highway 48 are patrolled with the help of Wildlife Alliance.
Beginning in 2002 with two ranger stations, Wildlife Alliance now operates six outposts in the Southern Cardamoms – a 680,000-hectare area known as the Southwest Elephant Corridor. With a mandate to enforce Cambodia’s Forestry Law (2002), each station is manned by a Wildlife Alliance station advisor, a Cambodian station assistant advisor, two Forestry Administration officials (Cambodia’s Forestry Administration, or FA, technically oversees all Wildlife Alliance ranger stations) and ten armed Royal Gendarmerie of Cambodia military policemen (MPs).
Wildlife Alliance builds, maintains and outfits its own stations. In addition to this, it provides its FA officials and MPs with allowances, bonuses and ‘per diem’ payments that can equal as much as five times their meagre government salaries. According to Wildlife Alliance CEO Suwanna Gauntlett, providing forest rangers with attractive wages is the first step to overcoming corruption.
The elephant eyes us as it strips foliage from the highway’s forest-shrouded shoulder. When it moves, it drags a stiff and swollen hind left leg. No one knows what caused the injury. The elephant seems to have no fear of humans.
When the first car comes, the once-placid elephant grumbles and distends its ears. Placing its trunk behind its tusks, the animal lowers its head and moves onto the road. The car slows. Čekotins and his assistant start shouting while the MPs brandish their rifles. After taking a good long look, the driver of the packed car accelerates just as the elephant is about to make contact.
The elephant stays in the road. Swinging its massive head, it begins lumbering towards us. Čekotins, the assistant, the FA and two of the MPs scatter. Patting his old AK-47, one of the MPs holds his ground. The elephant retreats to the shoulder.
Čekotins points to the MP. “Until two months ago,” he says, “Dina was selling information to traders.”
We play out the same scenario again and again. At one point, the elephant limps frantically after a banana-laden truck.
Light begins to fade. Rain replaces intermittent drizzle. The rangers look tired.
Dina is still in the centre of the road. With a nod from Čekotins, he points his weapon into the sky. One shot sends the elephant into the trees. Dina tries to shoot again but his rifle jams. Another ranger steps forward and fires – crack, crack – and the elephant rushes back into the wild dark heart of the jungle.
It takes over an hour of dirt roads and river travel to reach the station. Once there, I ask the rangers about the dangers they face. They talk about tigers, snakes, corrupt military officers, rich wildlife traders taking vengeance out on them and their families. I turn to Dina. Smiling into a warm can of Anchor beer, he tells me that nothing scares him.
“Not even elephants?” I say.
Dina laughs. “Even elephant,” he says, “is afraid of AK.”
Wildlife Alliance’s conservation efforts in the southern Cardamom Mountains are multipronged. In addition to pioneering reforestation and environmental education programmes, it operates Community Based Ecotourism (CBET) projects in the communes of Trapeang Roung and Chi Phat to provide loggers and poachers with alternative (and legal) sources of income.
These high-ranking officers think they can do whatever they want,” Chorn Hong, Stung Proat’s station assistant advisor, says. “I really want to catch these guys.
Chi Phat is the closest settlement to the Stung Proat ranger station. Before Wildlife Alliance’s rangers arrived in 2009, the majority of Chi Phat’s 500 families sought their livelihoods from the forest. While poaching and logging is in decline in the area, it is still a persistent threat – a threat fuelled by a handful of wealthy and well-connected wildlife and timber traders. The largest of them, Čekotins says, is an officer in the Royal Cambodian Army.
“These high-ranking officers think they can do whatever they want,” Chorn Hong, Stung Proat’s station assistant advisor, says. “I really want to catch these guys.”
Capturing Chi Phat’s traders, however, remains an elusive dream. By hiring the poor to extract and transport timber and wildlife, traders reap the rewards of their lucrative industry without putting themselves at risk – only their employees receive jail sentences and fines.
“It is tiring to only work on the surface,” Eduard Lefter, Wildlife Alliance’s southern Cardamoms Forest Protection Programme Technical Advisor, says. But by making the illegal wildlife and timber trades unprofitable through constant ambushes, raids and seizures, Lefter hopes to convince traders to pursue different lines of work.
The rangers split into two teams. Half monitor the highway. Half patrol the area’s winding rivers.
Cool brown water laps against the boat’s wooden hull. Langurs frolic in towering, vine-draped trees. A family of hornbills passes overhead. Jungle-clad mountains loom in the distance.
The few boats we’ve stopped have all been empty. A promising fire leads us only to frightened fishermen. We find nothing in a clearing with a weathered bamboo and thatch house. The rangers pluck limes from its trees.
“This is all protected land,” Čekotins says, gesturing around the simple house. “Because they were here before 2004, they get to stay. Our job is to take down anything new.”
Back in the boat, Čekotins gets a call. He listens. His face drains. He hangs up having barely said anything. He answers my questions by mumbling and shaking his head.
Later, with the rangers relaxing in their bunks, Čekotins pulls me aside. The call, he says, was about pangolins: small, scaly, anteater-like mammals that some consider a delicacy. Pangolins, which weigh between three and seven kilograms, fetch $280/kg in Phnom Penh. At least eight of these endangered animals, Čekotins says, were smuggled out of Chi Phat – a huge haul. A risky one too. Being caught with one pangolin can lead to a five to ten year prison sentence.
Čekotins tells me that he said nothing in the boat because another MP is a suspected informant. The rangers on road watch were dispatched.
Another call comes after dark. The pangolins were loaded into a car. A frantic chase along dark, dirt roads ended in disaster – taking a sharp turn, the rangers’ truck flipped twice into a ditch.
A tour of Stung Proat’s evidence room gives one an idea of the crimes its rangers are trying to combat. The cramped shed is stuffed with snares, nets, homemade rifles, chainsaws, boat engines and stacks of rare krunyung – Cambodian rosewood. Outside rest dozens of motorbikes and boats. Confiscated cars – usually Toyotas stripped of their seats to transport wood – are sent to stations with road access.
Rescued wildlife is released into the forest. Young and injured animals are cared for at the Wildlife Alliance-sponsored Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre near Phnom Penh. Bush meat and animal products are buried or burned. Rosewood, which can fetch as much as $20,000 per cubic metre, is occasionally sold at auction by the Forestry Administration. “I think it would be better for everybody,” Čekotins says, “if we just destroyed it.”
With so much at stake, illegal wildlife and timber traders employ a system of bribery, intimidation and violence to secure their business interests. Paid informants dot the landscape around the Stung Proat station, notifying traders of the rangers’ every move. Rangers have been known to take bribes for information, while others have been brutally attacked while off-duty.
Wildlife Alliance’s few paid collaborators live in a state of fear. One such collaborator, Hong notes, disappeared without a trace after providing information that led to the seizure of a $10,000 ocean-going boat loaded with $15,000 worth of rosewood. “It is very difficult for us to find informants,” Hong says. “Sometimes they are killed.”
Day two and three
The tangled jungle closes in on the narrow mud track. Whenever we stop, leeches materialise on our faces, arms and necks.
In some places, the mud is shin-deep. We’ve had to ford several streams and rivers. Rickety handmade bridges convey us over gorges. I’m surprised that our motorbikes have made it this far.
Most people don’t even know if what they’re doing is wrong.Kaspars Čekotins, Wildlife Alliance
Barred from further travel by a wide, fast-moving stretch of river, we retrace our route to a trailside clearing. With mud and water sucking at their boots, the rangers clear away underbrush with rusty machetes. Within minutes, their hammocks and tarps are up.
When we hear motorbikes revving in the distance, we immediately fan out along the trail. Next to me, one of the rangers squats in the mud, clutching his AK. The FA crouches across from us. He shows three fingers. The motorbikes hit the clearing and we spring.
Four disheveled men on three battered bikes. The rangers shout, brandishing their rifles. The men on the bikes freeze. The rangers search their belongings – only bananas, vegetables and tree resin. The FA jots this down in his notebook and sends them on their way.
“They’re always afraid when they see us,” Čekotins says. “Most people don’t even know if what they’re doing is wrong.”
Night comes. Mosquitoes buzz in angry clouds. The rangers eat dinner and retreat to their hammocks. If they hear motorbikes, they’ll ambush in the dark.
An uneventful night shifts to dawn. Warming themselves around a small fire, the rangers prepare a breakfast of instant coffee, pork, vegetables and rice. They eat until they hear the chugging of motorbikes.
The rangers hide along the trail. A bike emerges on the soupy track. Rifles pointed, the rangers block its path. Another five bikes follow. A total of six men, most carrying sacks. The rangers inspect. Snares are stuffed into one of their bags.
The men smile sheepishly as the snares are confiscated. There’s no law, Čekotins tells me, against owning rope. The men share their cigarettes before being sent on their way. The rangers finish their breakfast. There’s nothing else to do but crouch, listen and wait.