Countries in Southeast Asia, such as Cambodia and Vietnam, often become a middle point of illegal wildlife trading between Africa and China. In December of 2018, authorities in Cambodia seized a shipment of more than 3.2 tonnes of elephant tusks from Mozambique most likely en route to another country, though this was not known. Previously, a shipment in 2014 had been the largest haul of tusks ever confiscated. This isn’t the first time it has happened, and it most certainly won’t be the last. Wildlife in Cambodia may be obtained for pets, food, or to sell to other countries for further profit. Illegal wildlife is also seen as a status symbol, so being able to eat or have certain animals as a pet is popular.
While studying abroad in Cambodia, the illegal wildlife trade came up many times. I’ll be talking about some of the animals at risk in Cambodia, some threats to their habitats, as well as cultural practices and organizations that are trying to reduce the wildlife trade and decline in Cambodia. Throughout my time in Cambodia I was able to travel extensively around the country, but I was mainly stationed in Siem Reap. While in Siem Reap, we visited the Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity (ACCB) and were able to see and learn about heavily trafficked animals in Cambodia. This Centre is home to many reptiles, mammals, and birds that the Centre has either rescued from poaching or traps in the wild or that have been brought in by other people, as well as some select breeding programs for turtles and frogs. We were able to see a porcupine that had been a house pet—it couldn’t be introduced into the wild and was still exhibiting traumatic behavior from being in captivity. Porcupine quills are also used in traditional medicines in Cambodia or the porcupines are eaten for meat. We also saw a Malayan Civet that had been saved from being forced to produce coffee bean poop. After a civet eats coffee, it is unable to properly digest it, so the coffee bean comes out with a “more unique flavor”, so people say. Civet-eaten coffee beans, called kopi luwak, are extremely profitable, so most civets are in captivity in coffee farms or taken from the wild for these farms. We were also able to see monkeys that are losing prime habitat from habitat destruction for construction, being used as pets, or being eaten for meat. Nine out of ten of the primates found in Cambodia are gloablly endangered. While ACCB didn’t have any slow lorises, we were taught about their popular usage as traditional medicine and as pets.
While some species that I mentioned above are popular as pets and in traditional medicine, some species are being increasingly endangered due to disappearing habitats. Many prime forests are being logged extensively for profit, resulting in animals being more easily found and hunted more frequently. This is the case in the Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary, located in Mondulkiri province. I was able to visit the sanctuary many times during my stay and learn about the threats in the forest. Many endangered ungulates and primates have resided here, but the threat of illegal logging and agricultural advances has put these animals in even more danger. Illegal logging and deforestation are massive issues in Cambodia that have affected many people and animals. A study funded by NASA in 2015 revealed the massive scale and loss of deforestation in the country.
While the loss of wildlife may seem bleak, many organizations and groups are actively working to protect wildlife and stop habitat destruction. One group that I became familiar with is the Wildlife Conservation Society. Since 2002, they have been working extensively in the Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary, the northern plains, and the Tonle Sap. The World Wildlife Fund has also been working in Cambodia, most popularly to save the Irrawaddy dolphins, which are in danger of extinction along the Mekong River in Cambodia. Another organization is the Wildlife Alliance, which has also been working to end the wildlife trade in Cambodia. All of these organization work with locals to help protect and conserve animals and their habitats.
You may have read articles in popular media about the illegal ivory or pangolin trade in Africa or China. While the ivory and pangolin trade are more well-known, there are plenty of other wildlife issues that don’t get as much media coverage, like those I have mentioned in this post. If it hasn’t been on your radar, I recommend learning more about the illegal wildlife trade as this decades-long issue could result in massive ecological change if it continues.
Have you heard of the global illegal wildlife trade? Have you ever come across illegal wildlife trading or wildlife mistreatment during your travels?