Cambodia’s Trail of Guns

 Weapons from the Khmer Rouge now fuel wildlife trade

When armed conflicts erupt, wildlife usually suffers along with people. To better understand exactly how and why this occurs, researchers led by Colby Loucks of the World Wildlife Fund turned their attention to Cambodia, which suffered devastating violence and upheaval in the decades before Pol Pot’s death in 1998.

Since data on the country’s wildlife abundance are scant, the researchers enlisted an unusual source to chronicle the conflict’s effect: local hunters. Loucks’s team interviewed groups of hunters from eastern Cambodia about the abundances, ranges, and intended uses of 25 species during six political eras, from the early 1950s through 2005. The hunters outlined a substantial decrease in wildlife numbers and diversity, particularly during the war-torn 1970s. Five species, including the Asian elephant and the Siamese crocodile, vanished entirely.

Usually, habitat loss would be a prime suspect behind such declines, but the area’s forests remain vibrant. The researchers instead traced the wildlife problems to a shift in livelihood among the villagers.

Prior to the unrest, most villagers earned their living from fishing and possessed only rudimentary weapons, which made hunting a difficult proposition. The 1970s saw a huge influx of guns, many of which were given by the brutal Khmer Rouge regime to local hunters, who were then paid to kill wildlife. These kills were traded abroad for more guns and were used to provision the military. Over time, markets for Cambodian antlers, horns, bone, and other wildlife items grew, and commercial hunting became a viable livelihood strategy for many villagers. This hunting culture has proven hard to break, even though local authorities began removing guns from circulation in 2000.

The study shows that conflict affects wildlife for years after the fighting ends. The team points out that conservation goals and post-war efforts to build peace and establish the rule of law are complementary. ❧

—Rebecca Kessler

Loucks, C. et al. 2009. Wildlife decline in Cambodia, 1953–2005: Exploring the legacy of armed conflict. Conservation Letters DOI:10.1111/j.1755-263X.2008.00044.x.

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