Everyday our forest protection teams are out on the rivers and roads, and trekking through the deep forest of the Southern Cardamoms patrolling for signs of wildlife poaching, logging, and other illegal activities. Wildlife Alliance has six patrol stations scattered across the area and each station has teams patrolling day and night for offenders. Our presence there has cut down illegal activities considerably, but unfortunately offenders persist.
The Stung Proat station is located at the intersection of two major rivers, making it ideally situated to monitor trafficking. Patrollers there apprehended a logger and confiscated nearly 300 kilos of rosewood…but it wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Station supervisor Kaspars Cekotins tells the tale:
“It was a regular day at the station towards the end of October when I decided to go on patrol with my daytime team just after 2pm. One of my two teams was on monthly leave so I only had 5 military police (MP) at the station. Leaving 2 MPs on duty, I set out by boat with 3 MPs and turned up the Stung Proat River. Offenders have informants throughout the area so they always know when one of the teams is off on leave and can expect fewer patrols. This was probably why only 15 minutes after our departure, we saw 4 small boats loaded with rosewood heading in our direction.
First, I tried blocking them on the river but they noticed how few men we had in the boat so they tried to outpace us in their smaller boats. I swung the boat around and gave chase. The boats with smaller pieces of wood were throwing the pieces overboard to lose weight and elude capture. These people know the river very well so even though it was high tide, they dropped it in the areas they know to be most shallow so they could come back and retrieve it.
After only 40 seconds, I was close enough to touch the nearest boat. Even though I already had a grip on the boat, the driver refused to stop and continued to try to escape, so I stepped into the boat and dragged him over to our vessel. I asked one of the MPs to quickly handcuff him and then drive his boat to shore so we could go after the rest of the boats. Another 2 minutes and we were almost to the second boat. At that moment, the offender realized he couldn’t escape us and he steered the boat to shore and ran into the forest leaving the boat with the wood behind.
Meanwhile, I called the MPs at the station and asked them to get out on the speedboat and stop the rest of the boats as they passed. Unfortunately, by the time the other 2 boats arrived, they had ditched all their wood and appeared as normal boats when we searched them. Cambodian law dictates that a logger or poacher must be caught red-handed with the illegal material on them in order to be arrested so we had to let them go.
Despite this disappointment, we had captured 2 of the 4 boats and 1 of the offenders, so it was not a total loss. We returned to the station to document the evidence. Only when we got back did we realize that the first boat had not returned as we thought. When being dragged off the boat, the offender managed to let some water into the boat. Already heavy with wood, the boat sank into 4 meters (over 12 feet) of water. With night coming on quickly, we had to figure out how we were going to retrieve the evidence from the bottom of the river. We managed to get the boat and a bag with a 2 kilo snake but all the rosewood and the boat engine remained underwater.
The only thing we had going for us was that nobody but us knew exactly where the boat sank so I ordered all traffic halted on Stung Proat River. I knew the offenders would return to look for the sunken wood. At first light, around 5am the next day, we went to retrieve the wood from the riverbed. Since the tide was low, we could clearly see all the pieces that had been thrown overboard lying in the shallow parts of the river. After picking up the rosewood from the shallow areas, we came to the location where the boat had sunk. Even though it was low tide, we still had to dive nearly 3.5 meters (approx. 10 feet) to get to the bottom. This boat had been carrying the biggest pieces (some weighing nearly 50 kg), so we dove down with a rope, tied it around each piece and pulled them up into the boat. After 3 hours of diving, we recovered 270 kilos of rosewood and the sunken boat engine.
Later that day, we saw a lot of “fishermen” setting up their nets in the area and looking for the wood. Yet, there was none to be found after our very successful patrol.”