Search for the Hidden Killers

Search for the Hidden Killers – the millions of land mines worldwide, in countries such as Cambodia, are a threat to both human and animal life

Floyd Whaley

In Cambodia and elsewhere, land mines are taking a huge toll on wild animals

Last year in Manila I met with a friend to ask about the wildlife situation in Cambodia. My friend had worked in the small Southeast Asian country for years as a journalist, and he quickly rattled off the usual problems: rampant logging and indiscriminate hunting. But his next comment surprised me. “And then, of course, there are the land mines,” he said. “Who knows how many animals are killed by them?”

The cruel legacy of land mines for innocent people is well-known: Hundreds of thousands of people have been maimed or killed in recent decades by some of the more than 100 million land mines buried worldwide, according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL). But my friend’s rhetorical question intrigued me. How many tigers and other wild animals were being killed by these explosive devices?

To help answer that question, International Wildlife last summer sent me and photographer Kevin Hamdorf on a fact-finding mission to Cambodia, one of the world’s most heavily mined countries. Our plan was to spend time with de-mining crews, interview people who are starting to compile data on the wildlife carnage, visit markets where we might find both wildlife products and mines on sale, and see the infamous “killing fields” that still brim with mines. Our hope was that in Cambodia, just recently emerging from three decades of war, we would get a clearer sense of the largely unexplored global issue of how land mines affect wildlife.

Land mines come in a frightening array of shapes, sizes and uses: There are huge antitank mines, tiny plastic antipersonnel mines that can float down rivers, fragmentation mines that spray shrapnel and bouncing mines that can jump 3 feet and take off a child’s head. The devices are buried in 87 countries, making vast stretches of places such as Afghanistan, Angola, Iran and Iraq uninhabitable.

ICBL, a nonprofit group that won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize, tracks the human costs of land mines around the world. Lately, researchers associated with the organization have begun looking into the environmental impacts of the devices.

“Mines have killed many animals, including elephants in Africa and Sri Lanka, eradicated gazelles from parts of Libya, pushed snow leopards to the brink of extinction in Afghanistan, and killed one of the few remaining male silver-backed mountain gorillas in Rwanda,” said Bruce Gray, an Australian land mine expert who wrote a 1997 report on the issue for ICBL.

Reliable data on the extent of land mines’ toll on wildlife are difficult to come by. But Kevin Stewart, an environmental activist based in Canada, has made an attempt to quantify the problem. Stewart says he has compiled anecdotal reports of more than 1.6 million animals dying from land mines in 39 countries. In his collection are stories of as many as 20 elephants a year being killed by mines in Sri Lanka, of animals being “blown to pieces” in the Falkland Islands, and bears, deer and foxes triggering the devices in Croatia.

From an environmental standpoint, the most troubling use of land mines is in the countries with the richest variety of plants and animals, says Claudio Torres Nachon, director of the Center for Environmental Law and Economic Integration of the South, a nongovernmental organization in Mexico that is affiliated with ICBL. The most heavily mined among these “hotspots” of wildlife are countries such as Colombia, Mozambique, Angola, Burma and Cambodia, Nachon adds.

Cambodia was once home to herds of elephants, possibly thousands of tigers, wild cattle, leopards, bears, barking deer and an array of other animals. But decades of war have taken their toll on both this rich panoply of wildlife–and on people. Strife began in the 1960s, when the Vietnam War spilled into eastern Cambodia. It continued through the 1970s, when civil war raged and Pol Pot’s brutal Khmer Rouge forces triumphed. And it lasted through the 1980s and early 1990s, when Cambodians fought against occupying Vietnamese forces. As a result, Cambodia today is littered with as many as 6 million mines. An estimated 40,000 Cambodians have been disabled by mines, and uncounted numbers have died.

With peace and order slowly returning to Cambodia, and reports coming out of the country of land-mine-triggered wildlife casualties, Hamdorf and I packed our bags and left for Phnom Penh to begin our investigation. Our first meeting was with Hunter Weiler, a retired U.S. bureaucrat who has been working as an independent wildlife advocate in Cambodia for two years. Weiler recently helped organize a survey of hunters and local leaders on the status of the country’s wildlife. The survey, sponsored in part by the California-based nonprofit group Cat Action Treasury, found that Cambodian hunters are using land mines to kill tigers and other animals. The villagers place small mines under dead monkeys or other bait in the forest, and return a few days later, often to find the carcass of a hapless tiger that set off the device while examining the meat. Such booby traps, although crude, are easy to set up, and they leave enough of the tiger’s skin and bones to sell on the black market.

“The war is over but they picked up some very bad habits in the countryside,” said Weiler. “The hunters are taking mines out of the populated areas and putting them back down in the wildlife habitats.” Weiler’s survey found that the use of land mines to kill tigers, deer, wild cattle and other animals was widespread. For some hunters, though, the booby traps didn’t work. In one remote village, a tiger that stepped on a mine lived to bite one of his attackers on the rear and escape.

Weiler cautioned that land mines are not the only reason for the decline of Cambodia’s wildlife. “It’s not just the mines and artillery shells,” he said. “It’s thirty years of everybody having a gun and mowing down everything they see in the countryside.” Deforestation has also contributed to the disappearance of wild creatures, Weiler added.

To learn more about the fate of some of the country’s wild animals, Weiler suggested a visit to Street 166 in one of the city’s central markets. Land mines and heavy weaponry were once openly available in this and other markets, but a 1998 crackdown sent the weapons underground. The illegal trade in animals is still thriving, however. On the muddy road, I found rows of shops selling a grisly collection of animal parts: antlers, skulls, Asian black bear skins and paws.

At one shop, two giggling teenagers sat reading a magazine in front of an 8-foot-long tiger skin. The girls said matter-of-factly that the tiger skin sold for $700. When we pulled out a camera, both girls jumped up and rushed over to us, waving their arms angrily. “No photos! No photos!” the girls screamed. An older woman emerged from the back of the shop, yelled in Cambodian and pushed us out. As I was shoved away, I asked how the tiger had been killed. She responded by stomping her feet, shooing me away like a cockroach.

Hoping to get more definitive data on the extent of the land mine problem, I went to the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC), located on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. The United Nations, with the help of a $2.4 million grant from the United States and Sweden, set up CMAC in 1993 to coordinate the country’s de-mining efforts. More than 3,000 Cambodians and expatriates work for CMAC. The agency uses a variety of methods to clear land, including mine detectors, mine-sniffing dogs, high-tech sonar devices, a truck that whips chains onto mine fields and a 59-ton German vehicle that runs over mines.

In its utilitarian offices, I met Mao Vanna. Mao is a wiry, seasoned de-mining expert, and his eyes lit up when the subject of wildlife was mentioned. He has worked for years in some of the country’s most dangerous areas and could remember seeing animal carcasses in mine fields. He immediately confirmed Weiler’s reports of land mine hunting.

“The tribal people still use traditional traps, but the soldiers are lazy,” he said. “They use machine guns or booby traps with a 60mm- or 80mm-rocket shell hooked to a trip wire. That kills a herd.”

Other experts at the center told me that most of Cambodia’s land mines are spread out across the central and northwestern sections of the country, where much of the fighting with the Khmer Rouge took place. But millions of bombs were dropped by the American military on a section of the Ho Chi Minh trail running through the northeastern part of the country. As many as a third of those weapons are still lodged in the ground, unexploded.

“Animals are as much at risk from this unexploded ordnance as people, in fact more so,” said Bob Keeley, a former British military officer who is now an advisor for CMAC. “Animals can’t go to mine awareness training or read the warning signs.”

Cambodia’s de-mining center has been focusing on the human toll of the deadly devices, but it does have a brief report on the environmental impacts of land mines. The report states that land mines threaten wild animals both directly and indirectly. Mines not only kill or maim animals that step on them, but the devices force people off mined farmland and into the forest–where the displaced people clear new land for planting and kill animals for food.

After two days of reading and hearing about the land mine issue from others, I was anxious to get into the countryside and see the problem with my own eyes. Hamdorf and I rented an ancient car and found ourselves bouncing along a rutted road heading north from Phnom Penh to the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Battambang province. In 1998, the grueling eight-hour journey would have been impossible. Unmarked land mines, renegade bands of guerillas and violent bandits kept most non- Cambodians off the road.

The countryside was dotted with flimsy wooden shacks and muddy rice paddies. Huge trucks driven by uniformed soldiers hauled logs, flouting a nationwide ban on logging. At a ramshackle town along the way, we saw villagers turning over their weapons to a local official–part of a national program to disarm civilians. On the pile sat an M-16, a half dozen AK-47s and more pistols than I could count.

We stopped for lunch at a roadside food stall, where I shared a meal of chicken bones and rice with a passing team of de-miners. They told me my aching back would get no relief on the rugged road ahead.

“Are there still bandits and land mines?” I asked.

“No bandits or land mines on the road,” said one of the team with a smile, as he stood up to leave. Putting his hand on my shoulder, his face became serious. “But stay on the road.”

In Battambang town, land mines were not a concern but the menu at the Teo Hotel restaurant was something of a shock. “Fried Hot Spice with Wild Pig, Turtle, Deer or Jungle Dragon” sold for $2.50 a bowl. For the same price, diners could enjoy “Sour Spice Soup with Wild Animal.” The waiter explained flatly that “Wild Animal” was the diner’s choice of tiger, elephant or deer, but he had no idea if the animals had been killed by land mines.

At the mining center’s provincial headquarters the next day, six-year veteran de-miner Mam Neang described the challenge of his job. No maps were made by the armies that laid Cambodia’s mine fields. Most of those who set out the devices were untrained, and many have since died. As a result, mines were just randomly scattered and never recorded.

When asked about the impact on wildlife, Mam paused for a moment and then said no journalist had asked him that question before. “Wild animals are hitting trip wires out there all the time,” said Mam, a de- mining unit manager. “But we are focusing on the people. We’re not keeping records of the wildlife casualties.”

We then left in a convoy of off-road vehicles down a pockmarked road toward the village of Treng. As we arrived at the village, a cluster of houses at a road junction, a Canadian member of the de-mining team described it as “sort of the Poland of Cambodia. Both sides rolled back and forth through here, killing people and leaving mines.”

The whole village had been declared a mine field and the painstakingly slow process of clearing the area had just begun. The villagers, dressed in rags–some missing legs–just did their best until the de- miners made it to their homes. Bright red land mine warning signs lined the road and dozens of de-miners carefully probed the ground with rods, while children played in the fields beside them.

Assisting in the de-mining operation was Sith Tang, a 41-year-old who fought in the Cambodian military for 14 years before joining the de- mining group. “My men placed some of these mines,” he said. “We had to defend ourselves.”

Sith, who served as a second lieutenant, ordered his men to lay mines around their position every night when they slept in the jungle. Patrols on both sides routinely did the same thing and then just left the devices there the next day. In the morning, they often found deer, wild pigs and other animals that had stepped on mines the previous night.

On one occasion, when his men had rigged a trip wire to a 60-mm shell to defend their flank, they found a tiger the next morning dying a slow, painful death. Its front paws blown off and head nearly severed, it still squirmed when they approached.

Although I had been unable to get statistics on land-mine-related wildlife deaths in Cambodia, I had at least succeeded in getting a firsthand account. But the search left me troubled. In this war-torn country, where human life meant so little for so many years, the fate of animals was barely an afterthought. With the dawn of peace in Cambodia, I thought, perhaps the country’s wildlife would get more attention.

I asked Sith when he thought Cambodia’s forests and jungles would once again be safe for wildlife. He remained silent for a moment. “We’ll never be able to get rid of all the mines,” he said. “I think the animals are going to have to find some of them for us.”

Floyd Whaley is a Philippines-based contributing editor for Reader’s Digest and has written for USA Today and The Los Angeles Times. Kevin Hamdorf also lives in the Philippines and is a photographer for Action Asia. His work has also appeared in Discovery, Going Places and Holiday Asia.

COPYRIGHT 2000 National Wildlife Federation

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