By Khoun Theara
PHNOM PENH — In many restaurants in Phnom Penh, wild meat is readily available. Walk into one of these, and you’ll be able to order deer, wild pig or even monitor lizards. Some places sell even rarer meat, from endangered animals like the pangolin.
Wildlife conservation officials say the practice of serving wild meat in Cambodia is endangering many of its animals, along with other forms of trafficking. Meanwhile, the tiger and rhino who once lived here are no more, and wild elephants are increasingly rare.
In a restaurant in Phnom Penh one recent evening, fried wild pig was available, along with monitor lizard and deer, for a cost of about $8 to $10 per plate. Asked where they came from, a server said she wasn’t sure: “The sellers supply them directly to our restaurant,” she said.
A man who requested anonymity said he had once eaten mouse deer on a trip into the provinces. “It was more delicious than beef,” he said.
In other restaurants, rabbits, tortoises and snakes can be found. Wildlife conservationists say these practices and others do major damage to Cambodia’s fauna.
“Especially those who live in Phnom Penh when they visit the northern provinces, their main goal is to eat wild meats, to taste them,” says Khem Vuthyravong, a project manager with the wildlife rapid rescue team, under the Ministry of Agriculture’s forestry department. “And they also buy some for their friends when they return. Second, the wealthy, they are not interested in normal meats but wild meats like snake, as they believe that snake blood makes them stronger.”
The wildlife rapid rescue team, funded by Wildlife Alliance, is made up of eight armed rangers and four officials from the Forestry Administration.
Since it was established in 2001, it has rescued more than 60,000 animals from traffickers, in operations in public, on the road, in markets or restaurants or other sites.
Healthy animals are returned to the wild; injured ones are taken to the Takmao Zoo, outside Phnom Penh, or the Angkor Center for Biodiversity Conservation, in Siem Reap province.
Chhun Heang, a project coordinator at the Angkor Center, where more than 200 animals from 40 different species live, said some rescues recover, but others don’t.
“Most of the wild animals that we don’t release either got used to living with humans or permanently disabled, so we need to preserve them here,” he said.
The government has three classifications for illegally trafficked animals: endangered, like tiger and bear; rare, like the pangolin; and “medium”; wild pig and deer mouse.
Trafficking incurs fines up to three times the market value of the animal to imprisonment of five years and fines of $250,000, depending on the animal.
However, Khem Vuthyravong says local authorities have little incentive to make arrests, and, despite the work of his unit, wildlife hunting and trafficking, both profitable and easy, continues.
“Wildlife trafficking in Cambodia is systematic,” he says. “Traffickers just hide wild animals in a car or taxi, so it’s hard for us to crack down on them.”
Wild animals are supplied in two different markets. Dead animals are supplied for domestic consumption, and living ones are exported to neighboring countries across Cambodia’s porous border, where their value is up to four times higher.
Cambodia imports some wild animals from Thailand and Laos for domestic consumption, Khem Vuthyravong says.
Cambodia also serves as a transit point of illicit animal products, especially ivory, between Africa and Vietnam and China. In May, custom officers in Preah Sihanouk province’s seaport confiscated more than three tons of ivory in two containers from Malaysia. A kilogram of ivory is worth more than $2,000.