Cambodia finally tracks down and jails infamous tiger hunter

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The Independent Online

The Cambodian forest police have finally caught their prey. It was Yor Ngun, the notorious tiger killer of Koh Kong, no ordinary poacher. He was a stealthy tracker and legendary shot, who is thought to have killed 600 wild beasts since 2000 and countless more in the past three decades.

For years, Ngun, now 58, has headed the Most Wanted Killers list posted by regional conservation groups in South-east Asia, who hailed yesterday's surprise verdict in a court in the coastal town of Koh Kong, which jailed Ngun for seven years.

The clandestine hunter was found guilty of slaying 40 leopards, 19 tigers, 30 elephants, and 43 bears. In addition, Ngun rustled 500 head of wild cattle called banteng. "Even though he is too old to be in jail, he deserves it for what he did," Judge Sim Soung said.

Ngun has roamed for decades across 10 provinces, sticking to the remote rainforests and stands of bamboo. He was caught in north-eastern Cambodia a year ago but let go when he signed a promise not to destroy any more protected animals.

After that, conservation charities say, Ngun carried a wad of bills stuffed in his pocket, even though he pleaded poverty. But instead of pocketing any bribes, this time the officials charged Ngun with crimes against wildlife.

"His photo was sent across the country, but we lost track until he was arrested early this year," said Sun Hean, a Phnom Penh conservation activist.

Ngun's primary market is in China, where extravagant sums are paid for body parts of wild animals, used for trophies, amulets, or in traditional medicine and aphrodisiacs.

Animal rights supporters say it is consequently premature to celebrate this court verdict. One group, WildAid, says there are at least 700 other known traffickers in Cambodia - the hub of the criminal syndicate trading in endangered species.

After the genocidal regime of the Khmer rouge and decades of civil war, Cambodia had large tracts of virgin forest well-populated with wildlife. Illegal logging, poaching and illegal building are, however, taking a heavy toll. The Cambodian wilderness protection mobile unit, working with the San Francisco-based conservationist group WildAid, keeps a blacklist of wildlife traders, from whom they have rescued more than 28,000 live animals. Few can be prosecuted, however, and when they are the penalty is usually a derisory fine.

"Formerly staunch communist countries like Laos and Cambodia have become the newest links in the supply chain for the animal underworld," said Ben Davies, a Bangkok-based Briton who researched Asia's clandestine wildlife trade for three years while writing a book, Black Market.

Whether the arrest of one hunter will make any difference remains to be seen. Urban middle men and customs officials make far more money from endangered species than the trappers and shooters such as Ngun.