What price for wildlife?

“Biodiversity encourages tourism and generates income.” This was written on a banner wrapped around a building on the island opposite Kratie. It was also a sentiment expressed by the VSO representative, Mr Smith, who had been working with WWF for the past year. “The more tourists we have in the area coming here to see the wildlife, forests and river full of fish the more chance there is the government will see that tourism can generate money just as well as illegal loggers and fishers”. Sadly everything boils down to the dollar –wildlife is not worth saving for itself but only if it can turn a profit.

So we’ve all heard about illegal logging. Tracts of land sold off as concessions, the money pocketed, tales of secret shipments of logs exported across borders in ambulances and fuel tankers and people being killed if they try to expose what’s going on. But how many of us have heard anything about the illegal mass extraction of fish from the Mekong?

We met up with Nich from the WWF Kratie office. Nich and the WWF team have been working with communities along the stretch of Mekong from Kratie north to the Laos border, setting up ten community fisheries and improving law enforcement through patrol teams. It involves a nine step process, beginning with the establishment of a committee who appoint river guards to monitor activities along that stretch of river and decide which areas can be fished and which are closed to fishing, either fully or part time, through to developing good relations with the Fisheries Authority. This scheme began in 2006 and there are now 529 river guards each paid $5 a night to patrol their section of river. Gill net, dynamite and electric fishing are all illegal and bad news for fish populations. At the small local scale the guards are highly effective, confiscating nets and educating people about new laws and regulations and the value of the local wildlife, and the system works well. However, such community protection without backing or legal support is sadly unable to take on “the big guys”.
So who are the big guys? Vietnamese fishers. Here is where it gets twisted, a case of selling snow to eskimos or in this case, fish to Cambodians. The Vietnamese bring in truck loads of farmed fish which is generally sold for a dollar a kilo less than fresh fish caught in the Cambodian Mekong. The now empty vans or trucks are then filled with fresh Mekong river fish and trucked to Saigon where it fetches an incredibly high price.
The fresh fish is caught using illegal methods at night by teams of small, two man craft using electrodes to stun the fish making them easy to the scoop abroad in greater quantities than is possible using traditional fishing methods. These are offloaded at various points along the river taken to Vietnam or sold off for in the local markets for a higher price than the farmed fish. “Just go up the road to the market here in Kratie in the morning and you’ll see them. Fish caught this way are easily identifiable because the electric current causes massive internal bleeding so they’ve haemorrhaged heavily.” And indeed we did. Many a nice chunky catfish were selling for 20,000 Cambodian Riel a kilo –about $5.

Everyone knows it’s going on but palms have been greased and so Cambodia’s biodiversity continues to cross borders unabated and the river guards are left high and dry. The guards, we’re told, recently plucked up courage to confiscate a boat and its load of illegally caught fish only to then find themselves arrested and in court on the charge of stealing said boat! And who can blame the local fishermen who seize the chance to earn $500 a night. It’s the same mentality that results in cutting a tree down because you can buy a tractor with the money from the sale.
So perhaps tourism will be able to incite the government to protect the nation’s fish as seems to be the case with the Irrawaddy River dolphin. These used to be prolific before being hunted for food and oil during the Khmer Rouge. Today there are less than 100 left in Cambodia. WWF carry out regular monitoring of them and boats take tourists out twice a day to see them, or like us, you can take a kayak down the river and float silently across the deep pools watching the dolphins swim around you. The tourist boats are captained by local fishermen as part of WWF’s livelihood improvement schemes. During tourist season they can earn up to $7.50 a day. Bird nest protectors, wood carvers and homestays also fall under this scheme as further means to raise awareness of the value dolphins have for tourism in the area.
However, this education doesn’t always go to plan. Locals see tourists paying to visit wildlife attractions such as the dolphins or turtle centre and see an opportunity to get on the band wagon. So they catch a turtle keep it in a bucket and charge tourists a dollar to see it. The tourists themselves also cause problems. There is often an ethos amongst some travellers that everything should be free. The entrance fee to sit for as long as you like on the jetty and watch three quarters of the world’s last river dolphins in their natural habitat is a measly $7. This money goes to pay the wages of the river guards and boatmen. Yet we found two tourists arguing with the ticket officer about the expense. It’s less than the cost of two coffees in the UK. You won’t find them arguing with a Costa Coffee barista about the price of their skinny lattes.
A bit of a mixed bag this story… while WWF and their team on the ground are doing great things within the communities, as well as working with the Fisheries Authority and facilitating communication and cooperation between the various interested parties, until the government decides to value its natural capital above the means to “get rich quick” the situation remains an uphill battle. The good news is that when this does happen, all WWFs schemes will already be in place and ready to go, able to function effectively in the manner intended. But as to when this will happen… who knows.

By Natasha and Lucy