Posted on 07 August 2020
“I feel remorse and awful for killing wildlife in the past. I didn’t understand what I was doing” – Moen Thoeun
Dressed in full camo and a pair of combat boots, Moen Thoeun swings a rifle onto his shoulder with a smile, ready to head out into the forest. But when asked about his past, Mr. Moen Thoeun’s face turns stern. Now a ranger in Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary, his poacher background still lingers in his mind.
“I didn’t think I could be a ranger,” Thoeun said. “Thinking back, I feel regret that I killed wildlife. I didn’t understand what I was doing.”
When the Khmer Rouge regime fell in 1979, Cambodia was left in shatters after the genocide which took over two million lives, scarring both its people and wildlife. The end of the war left many soldiers, Thoeun being one of them, unemployed and in great hardship.
“I didn’t know what to do for a living, so I decided to be a poacher. There were many guns remaining from the war in almost every household.”
Thoeun would walk alone in the forest of Snoul district in Kratie province to look for wild animals. Once he’d spotted his target, he’d shoot, mainly aiming at big male solitary animals while leaving mothers, babies and small animals. Afraid of the animals, he’d hang his hammock on a tree to sleep in each night. In the morning, he’d get up and continue his journey.
“Big trees were still uncut. I saw various types of Tigers, big and small, herds of elephants, and even Golden Jackals,” Thoeun recalled. “Back then, there were a lot of Deer, Gaur and Banteng. I used to see 30 to 40 animals together, but today there are only six or seven in a herd. As for Tigers, I don’t know where they’ve gone because I never see them anymore these days.”
Tigers were once widely distributed across Cambodia. But since the intense rise of poaching and snaring and the destruction of their habitat, Tigers and their prey have slowly declined. The last Tiger seen was in 2007 from a camera trap image from Srepok Wildlife Sanctuary, Mondulkiri province. In 2016, experts declared the species functionally extinct in Cambodia.
“They say Tigers are fast and dangerous,” Thoeun said. “I don’t believe that because I’ve shot one myself.”
In the 1980s, Thoeun was following a herd of Gaur in the Ktong area when he suddenly spotted a Tiger also eyeing the same target. Walking stealthily without shoes, he hid behind a tree and took his shot. He butchered its skin, fangs and gallbladder and sold it at the Vietnamese border for 20 million Dong (around 860 US dollars).
“Back then, I didn’t feel sorry for doing so,” he said. “I only thought about killing wildlife and earning money. I didn’t think wildlife could be extinct.”
For almost five years, Thoeun made a living from poaching. Many people in his village hunted wildlife as well, though mainly for food.
“I stopped poaching because I realised I was earning very little from it, just enough for drinking alcohol.”
In 1991, Thoeun decided to apply to become a contract ranger. He earned a decent salary and was able to buy a motorbike. Thoeun believes poachers can never be rich, as wild meat sells for only 8,000 riel a kilogram. Poaching is also a difficult and high-risk job, both with encounters of wildlife and law enforcement forces.
Today, Thoeun patrols the forests of Mondulkiri Province in the Eastern Plains landscape of Cambodia as an official ranger, proud of the dangerous but meaningful conservation work he does. In recent years, the most concerning threat Thoeun has witnessed is snaring, which he thinks can trap as much wildlife in five months as a whole year of shooting.
Currently, the Ministry of Environment employs 1,260 rangers and manages 60 protected areas covering more than 7.2 million hectares, equal to 41 percent of Cambodia’s total land area. In collaboration with local authorities, associations, communities and NGOs, rangers patrol the protected areas round the clock.
For over two decades, WWF has been working closely with the Royal Government of Cambodia to provide support from the local to national level to protect natural resources and improve communities’ livelihoods. WWF has been supporting protected areas management, building capacity for law enforcement and providing necessary equipment to a total of 271 rangers and river guards for regularly patrolling protected areas in the Eastern Plains and Mekong landscapes.
“I’ve changed from a poacher to a protector,” Thoeun said. “If I could see a single tiger in the forest today, I’d follow it and protect it everywhere it goes.”