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Kicking the habitat: Athletes weigh in for wildlife

With his fierce reputation in the ring, Cambodia's most famous kickboxer, Ei Puthang, may seem an unlikely choice as the new ambassador for environmental NGO WildAid. But there is a strong and long-standing connection between kickboxing and the pillaging of wildlife, says the head of the organization, Suwanna Gauntlett.

"During research on Cambodian cultural beliefs, we discovered that kickboxers traditionally washed in bear's blood, because they believed it would take away the bruising. They wore tiger teeth around their neck before a match for good luck, and ate gall bladder and bear paws for strength," Gauntlett told the Post. "Ei Puthang is Cambodia's top kickboxer. He does not need to consume wildlife to be strong."

The global wildlife trade is worth an estimated $9 billion a year. Cambodia, with its array of exotic animals, is a major source for the industry, as well as a transit point for traffickers, Gauntlett says. While most of the trade is fuelled by demand from China, the local popularity of traditional Chinese medicine, which utilizes wildlife, and a penchant for exotic meat, is also to blame.

With the help of Phu Thong and fellow celebrities Preap Sovath and Tep Rindaro, WildAid is targeting "rich eaters" - Cambodians who can afford to buy wildlife delicacies or keep them as exotic pets. As ambassador, Puthang will compete at WildAid kickboxing matches in five provinces this year.

Speaking prior to a Siem Reap match last month, Puthang said he had never eaten wildlife but was familiar with its uses.

"As a kickboxer, I have friends who used to carry bear teeth for luck. I depend only on my strength and training," he said. "We must save our natural heritage so that younger generations can enjoy it too."

During breaks between fights, Gauntlett educated people about the impact of wildlife trafficking on tourism.

"You could earn $1,800 selling a bear. But if you keep it alive in the forest, you could make 10 times more money. Do you know how?" Gauntlett asked the 2,000-strong crowd. "Because tourists come from all around the world to see Cambodia's natural forest. But while they are staying, they will eat at your restaurant, buy crafts at your store, stay at your hotel, and spend time in your taxi."

In 2003, WildAid spearheaded a campaign to stop Phnom Penh restaurants serving wild food. It carried out random kitchen inspections and instructed restaurant owners to alter their menus and display signs stating they no longer served wild meat. The city's governor, Kep Chuktema, has since announced that wildlife consumption in restaurants is down 75 percent.

But a loophole blocking WildAid from monitoring restaurants may permit some wildlife to reappear on dinner plates.

"Often a restaurant will also be the owner's home - they are not separate," Gauntlett said. "So based on the constitution, we can no longer inspect without a search warrant because it is an abuse of human rights. It's terrible."

WildAid field officers can still enter restaurants anonymously, but they are handicapped because, where wildlife is available, it no longer appears on menus.

"It is a grey area and we are pushing to get it changed," Gauntlett said. "But the situation is nothing compared to how it used to be... The trade has been driven underground and that is the best we can hope for."

Capturing wildlife is a first-class forestry offense. But with the profit to be made on an elephant exceeding $10,000, hunting remains an attractive occupation for many rural Cambodians. In China, a new law forbidding the consumption of snakes and pangolins has helped WildAid's plight. But within Cambodia, putting an end to wildlife trafficking means policing borders, national parks and major transport routes.

Currently, the mobile unit - a collaboration of WildAid, the Ministry of Environment and forestry administration workers - stop one shipment of around 100 macaques every week on their way to Vietnam, or medical laboratories for Western companies in China. "The situation is very bleak," Gauntlett said. "For every ship we stop, there are 10 more ships we don't see that same day. We need at least 10 more mobile units to tackle the problem."

In Koh Kong, a sentence of seven years was recently meted out to hunters arrested by the SWEPT control unit, which is supported by WildAid. But this is the exception, Gauntlett says.

"Cambodia's court system is the weakest link," she said. "They are not taking wildlife trade seriously enough."

Once saved by WildAid, the animals undergo rehabilitation at Phnom Tamao rescue center before being released into protected areas, such as Bokor National Park.

"It is a last resort strategy," Gauntlett said. "We have little left but we believe that cracking down on the wildlife trade, along with the strict protection and release of animals, could help populations rebound to sustainable levels."