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By Pork Out in Singapore

January 2005

Two hours’ flight from Changi Airport, the afternoon sun illuminated brown tributaries meandering carelessly, sometimes overflowing padi fields, through flat lying greens. Here I am in Cambodia- a country I had never thought much a month before departure. A far cry from Singapore’s silver skyline of concrete and glass, Phnom Penh greeted me in a cloud of fumes from the motor traffic and scorching heat.

Prior to the trip, I had managed to skim through materials written on the country in the peace and comfort of the library. At one corner of the towering shelves, thick books puffed their chests proudly bulging with terms like “Pol Pot Regime”, “ Khmer Rouge”, “ Killing Fields” and “Angkor Wat”. Back in school days, we debated the kingdom’s history and politics in history classes, diligently memorizing milestones to the specific dates. Those sessions taught me how to get my point across, but they did not teach me how to cross a road in Phnom Penh.

Cambodians drive on either side of the road, as long as they feel it is right. Amidst the confusing traffic flow, motorcycles puffed and grunted under the weight of families sardined together, yet making room for their haystack, livestock or even a toilet. I felt relief when we finally arrived at Phnom Tamao Zoological Garden and Rescue Centre after an hour of bumpy bus ride. I had to nurse my nether region, things are going to get better. It couldn’t get worse.

Young and dignified, I was eager to prove myself by signing up for a wildlife conservation expedition outside my comfort zone. I was prepared to face adversities of living in a third world country for three weeks, even if I were upset, robbed or lost. Having lived in an affluent nation all my life, I was optimistic about helping to make a positive difference to wildlife conservation with my knowledge and experience. I had preconceptions of the problems here from what I had read. When we were introduced to our only water source, a cement algae-clad tank filled with slime infested with mosquito larvae, I could not help but gasp.

Things start to slacken when mom and dad aren’t looking. No need to vacuum the floor since we were living on dirt. Nobody would have noticed if fallen leaves littered our campsite. At dawn, the villagers crouched over the dirt and swept their compounds noisily with makeshift broom made of dried sticks bundled together. Their lifestyle is so idyllic they probably have nothing constructive to do! Only time will tell, and the time we had, where 90% lived without electricity, was under the mercy of the sun. Night soon engulfed the forest and city-dwellers like us fumbled and groped clumsily in pitch black. If there were half an hour of blackout back home, it would be a nationwide emergency. The villagers remained calm and oriented, adapted to the darkness. Suddenly, someone from my team shrieked. Scorpions and centipedes were invited by the cozy accommodation we had left for them in the day. We learnt our lesson, rather painfully.

There were more nerve-wracking problems for the heroes and heroines of wildlife conservation. From buzzing mosquitoes to burgling macaques, we were left to fend for ourselves with the primordial tools we had, except a few important inventions like insect repellent we smuggled from civilization. While we were handling the influx of visitors whizzing in our thatched living quarters, a candle light flickered from an adjacent bamboo weaved hut. Unfazed by the chaos created by their foreign neighbours, the young villagers buried their heads in books.

Did anyone warn them books are not the best source of knowledge? Being enthusiastic about wildlife conservation, I was a voracious reader for materials on poaching and logging. Solving the equation was just sacrificing a consumer’s desire by pushing away a bowl of sharks’ fin soup. The expedition allowed me to confront issues face to face beyond my myopia. I would never had known the complexity of problems plaguing Cambodia and that they are directly or indirectly interwoven with issues of wildlife conservation.

Cambodia is a country culminated in moral dilemmas. It is difficult to educate its people about the ills of poaching when their livelihood depends on it. For most of them, immediate relief to hunger and poverty reigns over far-fetched concerns on the danger of habitat destruction and species extinction. Rules and penalties imposed on them are just indirect discrimination against the poor who tried to feed their families better by trading things, animals or plants, from the forests. How could I pass moral judgment on children who stole feed from the pigs? I had to look after the animals, but I would not want to see children starve. Who are we from consumer societies to say that it is wrong to poach or log for a simple livelihood when we are buying more and throwing more than the earth can hide. They are driven by desperation and above all, like all other living organisms, an instinct to keep surviving by all means.

We don’t preach them the ills of poaching, logging and smuggling resources like we preach to citizens from developed nations. That wouldn’t work. In order to make things work, we had to change our own perception and roles. From policing parks and arresting “culprits”, we have to offer varied options for their survival. This may sound common sense, but it will need a tremendous concerted effort from the government, associations, private sector, international organizations, locals and the rest of us from the global community. Struggling to keep their lives together, this synergy must function efficiently so that the locals would not see a need to return to trading their forests to feed a rumbling stomach.

When you can’t put yourself in their shoes, simply because they don’t even have shoes, you can take your own off and walk in the dirt with them. In Cambodia, I was upset by the multitude of problems, robbed of my ego and lost for words most of the time. Nonetheless, I remember the flickering flame in the enveloping darkness. Having survived wars and the Pol Pot regime, Cambodians have overcome extreme hardships than we can barely imagine. Now, days are only going to get better. Conservation efforts must, like the river which has just begun to overflow and cruise around the plains, reach out to myriad tributaries, bringing vegetation to life and adjoining the open sea.

E-mail the author here: porked_out@yahoo.com.au

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