On a recent afternoon, a patrol of armed forest rangers came across three teenage boys in the forest of the Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary.
The rangers, who work for the government but are bolstered by a conservation group, jumped out at the boys and told them to stop. They had them lace their fingers behind their heads and sit on the grassy trail for questioning.
A slingshot was confiscated. The boys were questioned about axes, timber, wildlife, and the oil of the “meas prov” tree, which is used in the manufacture of illicit drugs. Where do you live, the rangers asked. Why are you here?
The boys said they had come to gather timber, and that, yes, they knew it was a crime but that they needed money for their education.
The lead ranger, a thirtysomething named Rong Pheak, decided the captives should sign a form promising not to break the law in the sanctuary and be released with a warning.
Rong Pheak says it is the rangers’ job to look for illegal activity and make arrests when necessary—they have police jurisdiction in the park—but also to educate villagers, like these, on the law.
When the three boys had bounded down the trail for home, the rangers continued their patrol, into the Samkos mountains and the sanctuary, which spans 330,000 hectares across the provinces of Battambang, Koh Kong and Pursat.
Not all encounters go so easy. The rangers face the prospect of men armed with axes or chainsaws or guns, far in the forest.
The rangers work for the Ministry of Environment, supported by Fauna and Flora International. They have an FFI technical adviser, a former US Special Forces soldier, and salary subsidies to curb the temptation of corruption. They have old guns and few bullets, but they take on frequent patrols for up to five days at a time or more, in search of poachers and loggers.
The FFI ranger program has been ongoing for more than five years, and the rangers now say they are seeing some results. However, challenges remain before they can truly protect the forest.
On a recent weekend, a team of rangers hauled their packs and rusting rifles through the jungle, up a steep mountain, to camp near a stream. They walked mostly in silence, listening for the telltale signs of chainsaws in the woods and looking for side trails that could mark new snares or logging operations.
“Forest crimes have been on the decrease, and so is illegal wildlife hunting,” says Rong Pheak, head of the Samlout district ranger station, sitting near a forest stream on Phnom Samkos mountain. “The people here are now better aware of the importance of the forest and consequences of forest crimes.”
A similar ranger team arrested a group of three illegal loggers on the Pursat side of the sanctuary earlier this month, sending them to jail, where they were charged and are awaiting trial.
But the sanctuary is huge, with steep terrain and deep forests that make patrols difficult and sometimes allow perpetrators to escape. Established in 1993, the sanctuary is home to about 11,000 people, 200 species of birds, and 60 different mammals.
Chad Williams, FFI’s technical director for the program, says the patrols are having an impact, whether in arrests, destroyed equipment or simple deterrence.
“In the last two months, we destroyed over 600 snares and traps that were set for wildlife,” he says at the Samlout station after a two-day patrol. “We're continually encountering illegal loggers and destroying and confiscating their chainsaws and also luxury timber that would have been hauled out of the sanctuary.”
However, rangers say the sanctuary is still under threat of logging and hunting, especially from clear-cutting and the occupation of land. There are too few of them to patrol the whole area, they say. And at times, they run into other obstacles, including soldiers near the Thai border.
“When we’re informed of illegal logging in a certain area, we rush there immediately, but before we can get there, we have to ask permission from the commander there,” says Nov Uok, a ranger team leader. “So we can’t crack down on the offenders in time, since they’ve already learned about our coming.”
In the past, other arrests have led to naught, with offenders released from jail without punishment.
“Sometimes they come back and laugh at us for a few days after we’ve arrested them and sent them to court,” Nov Uok says. “We’ve been very discouraged by this.”