Former poacher turned wildlife protector
For 12 years now Lean Nhor has been working hard with WWF to protect wildlife in the Eastern Plains of Cambodia, a vast, rich stretch of dry forest, which is part of the biggest intact dry forest block in south-east Asia. Nhor works daily to protect the forest - where tigers and elephants once freely roamed - against illegal loggers and hunters, whilst helping to monitor the health of the ecosystem. It is a challenging and dangerous job. He is driven, he said, by the thought that one day his son and daughter will be able to get to know the wildlife that was once found in abundance in the dry forest.
Nhor, 49 years old, started poaching as a soldier in 1979, the year the brutal Khmer Rouge regime was toppled. The country was poverty-stricken. He said that a lack of food in his family’s bellies combined with a lack of knowledge led him to hunting. Nhor said he felt joy when he walked out of the forest, in the years of hunting that followed, with a gaur or banteng and he knew that his family would not go hungry for a while.
21 years later in a Cambodia that had gone through much change, his brother Lean Kha, who also used to poach and was a WWF ranger at the time, came to him and pleaded with his brother to stop hunting. Kha feared that his brother would be arrested under new laws that made hunting for wildlife illegal. Nhor was reluctant. He made good money from selling the meat, horns, fur and bones of different animals, which for gaur or banteng meat could fetch anything from 3000 riel, the equivalent of just under one US dollar, right up to about US$150 for the horns of males.
“I did not know it was illegal. My brother told me that we could not hunt wild animals anymore. He also told me that there was an NGO who worked to conserve the wildlife here in conjunction with the government of Cambodia. My brother asked me to stop poaching and helped me to get a job with WWF. This was in 2000.”
Nhor said smiling that he loves his job despite his salary not always going as far as he would like to support his family. For the animals that he once felt nothing for, he now has great respect and feels that because of his past he can better protect them by using his sophisticated understanding of animal behaviour.
He explained that part of the reason why he loves his job so much is because of all that he has learned.
“Since working with WWF, I have been trained and educated about the significance of wildlife. I know now that the forest is everything, it can prevent flooding, prevent drought, and it provides for its people by producing resin and other non-timber forest products, which communities can collect.”
The former poacher is proud of his team’s work. Their commitment has contributed to a rise in the number of animals like banteng and muntjac, which are important prey species for tigers, a crucial requirement to support possible future attempts to reintroduce the majestic beast back into the landscape.
Despite his worries for the future, in an ever changing Cambodia, and his worry that their efforts will not be enough to save the dry forests, his greatest hope is that one day he will be the one to get a photo of a tiger on a camera trap.