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The Eco-Mercenaries
JACK HITT . NY Times . 04 aug 2002

Picture a cliff plunging nearly a mile straight down into a thick blanket of green rain forest. Beyond it is the Gulf of Thailand, where on a late cloudless afternoon invisible fishing boats score tiny V's into the glassy surface.

The mountain's edge of this place -- Bokor, in southern Cambodia -- is marked by a stone balustrade, once the breathtaking patio of a 1920's French hotel and casino that is now a charred, bullet-pocked shell. The sandbags of machine-gun nests abandoned by the Khmer Rouge have burst, and silicon stalactites leech from the remaining balconies. With relative peace restored to Cambodia in recent years, the surrounding bush is quickly reclaiming the place. Earlier in the day, fresh tiger droppings laced with telltale pig bones were spotted along the road. Now, as the sun drops toward the horizon, thousands of red butterflies suddenly arrive, pulsing in and out of the cavernous hotel, giving it a Marquezian sense of distant hope.

''Look, there,'' says Mark Bowman, the man in charge of training the 10 armed Cambodian park rangers standing behind me. The men chatter in Khmer, lighting one another's cigarettes, dangling their banana-clip AK-47's. Bowman points to a tiny white thread far off in the forest below, a column of smoke. ''Poachers,'' he says.

In a country where there is little help for the people, a new generation of environmentalists is trying to protect the ebbing populations of wildlife in the Southeast Asian bush. And they are doing it the way so much gets done these days: with troops and guns. Bowman is a 6-foot-2 Australian infantryman dressed in full tiger-stripe camouflage with a matching floppy hat. He's a cheerful sort, one who has been on so many missions that he possesses a jaded, in-country sense of humor, one that easily ranges from monkey sex to legs blown off by land mines. His resume is crammed with danger: soldier on the United Nations peacekeeping force here in 1992; de-miner at Phnom Penh's airport; chief of security for Matt Dillon's upcoming film set in Cambodia, ''City of Ghosts.''

When I casually refer to him as a mercenary, Bowman laughs, then quickly turns serious: ''I'm a tactics adviser, mate. I'm training park rangers in arrest procedure, ambush techniques and night patrol.''

As Bowman's eyes scan the treetops, he spots more and more of the smoky threads, seven in all. ''See how those two are slightly larger than the others -- they're probably sawmills,'' he says, explaining that timber poachers typically make camp, mill trees at the site and then build muddy skid roads to remove the lumber. ''Now if I had proper radio equipment,'' he muses, ''a ranger could take sightings to get the G.P.S. coordinates, call it in, and we could run a patrol into the jungle right up on them.''

Bowman addresses his thoughts to Pete Knights, a 38-year-old Brit who helped found this operation. Hiring men like Bowman to transform this ragtag bunch, some of them former Khmer Rouge infantry, into an effective wildlife-patrol team is at the heart of his work.

Knights is one of four loosely connected activists who call themselves WildAid -- two experienced eco-spies, a former counterinsurgency spook-in-training at George Washington University and a wealthy heiress. Three men and a blonde, they are a kind of Mod Squad of the jungle.

As Knights explains it, there was a time when it was sufficient to merely inform the public about some ecological problem and then await a governmental response: the Clean Air Act, some endangered-species filing, a ban on whaling. But in the global economy, passing legislation is no longer enough. So Knights and his colleagues are training armed combatants to enforce the law around the globe.

Since many governments can't afford to invest in effective law-enforcement officers, they usually hire locals on the cheap. (When we arrived at the Bokor headquarters -- a one-room building constructed from seized lumber -- the barefoot rangers rushed out to greet our Jeep because they knew we were carrying a duffel bag filled with new boots and official two-toned brown uniforms with ''WildAid'' stitched over each pocket.) WildAid approaches individual governments and offers to pay extra money to state-employed rangers like the men in Bowman's group and then train them in effective Western military and law-enforcement tactics.

In Russia, WildAid-trained rangers have helped save the Siberian tiger from being hunted into extinction. In Thailand and Cambodia, they defend the most-hunted animals of the jungle (elephant, tiger, turtle, monkey, snake). In the Galapagos Islands, WildAid is assisting maritime rangers in interdicting suppliers of shark fins, the demand for which has skyrocketed since shark-fin soup is the first indulgence of the upwardly mobile Chinese middle class. In May, the U.S. State Department took notice, awarding WildAid an $80,000 grant to help them expand their efforts.

"We know what's wrong out there, don't we?'' Knights says as we walk up and down the cliff's edge outside the old casino. ''We don't need any more reports. We know what to do.'' Knights has the spiky hair of the early Sting and not that long ago was the bass player for Idle Hands, a Talking Heads-like band. But then he fell in with some environmentalists and found himself drawn to increasingly risky eco-chores, which is how he met his like-minded WildAid co-founders -- Steve Trent, another Brit, and two Americans, Steve Galster and Suwanna Gauntlett. Galster was among those environmentalists in the 1990's studying the problem of the illegal trade in rhino horn. But instead of writing a report, Galster hid a camera in a satchel and posed as a black-market dealer. He successfully infiltrated the international wildlife syndicates all the way to the top, uncovering a plot by the Chinese mafia to hoard rhino horn (already selling at $30,000 a kilo) and then drive up the price even higher with a unique corner-the-market plan: hunt the animal to extinction.

WildAid's approach to environmentalism is aggressive but also economically comprehensive. The work in the jungle is only one of a series of efforts meant to interrupt the illegal wildlife market. Knights and his three friends have also trained urban detective squads in Bangkok and Phnom Penh. These teams secretly videotape the dealings of middlemen and later arrest and charge them. There are other programs to tamp down supply sources: in the villages that sit on the periphery of the jungle, WildAid advisers convert regular poachers to the more legitimate careers of, say, mushrooming farming -- not to mention paying them to rat out other poachers. They also try to drive down demand by producing television spots in Asia with mega-celebrities like Jackie Chan who denounce using endangered wildlife for food or medicine.

Knights may have learned his espionage chops on the street, but his theory is old school. He earned his degree at the London School of Economics and thinks no differently than any committed free trader. ''The idea is to use every tool we can find to disrupt every part of the economic system that links the jungle to the store,'' Knights says. ''We identify every weakness in the trade cycle of illegal wildlife and attack it.''

Compared with other international environmental groups, WildAid runs on a shoestring. Conservation International, for example, recently received a $261 million grant from Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel. WildAid's annual budget is about $2.5 million. About $1 million of operating expenses for the salaries and expenses of the four founders and about 30 staff members comes from the Barbara Delano Foundation, a philanthropy run by Suwanna Gauntlett (whose great-grandfather, Dr. William Upjohn, started the pharmaceutical company). The $1.5 million WildAid spends on the ground interrupting the wildlife trade is raised from other foundations and individual donors.

As day ebbs into night at the Bokor outpost, we get back into our S.U.V.'s and jackhammer in and out of cavernous potholes unmaintenanced since the French left, arriving at a small outbuilding fixed up to serve as a substation. The Cambodians clean their guns. To light the kitchen where we cook, a small generator huffs out back (as they do at dusk all over rural Cambodia, where a liter of fuel will light a single bulb and keep a TV running for prime-time shows in even the smallest of huts).

Bowman explains that poachers are sometimes military policemen who freelance in the woods to catch a pricey but protected animal. Or they might be locals looking for aloe wood (incense and perfume makers value its exotic fragrance) or yellow vine (an ingredient in whitening creams that some Asians use to bleach their skin). Such harvests might not be so bad, except that poachers often just cut down the entire tree to retrieve the vines on top while killing any animal they can find to eat during their stays in the jungle.

Many of these poachers carry chain saws, a precious tool in this battle. Catching a poacher with one is significant, since a new one costs about $800 in Cambodia, a small fortune when monthly salaries can be $12. On the other hand, the poachers who tote such expensive appliances tend to work for black-market dealers and frequently carry weapons. All the WildAid rangers in our group have experienced gunfire. A few months before I arrived, a patrol of rangers was stunned when a grenade sailed out of the bush and exploded at their feet. Seven of the rangers took shrapnel in the legs.

Later that night, Bowman explains that we will be heading out in the morning for the northern tip of Bokor National Park, where WildAid spies have detected a heavy surge in poaching. As the generator chokes on its last fumes, the light bulb gutters like a candle stub. By flashlight we head to our bunks as the noises of the jungle creep in the casino windows. Bowman asks if I intend to keep wearing my red hunting shirt. I laugh as if I get his joke. ''You'll be way too easy a target,'' he says, not joking, and tosses me a black shirt.''You'll wear this.''

The next morning, 10 Cambodian rangers pile improbably into their only truck, a mini-pickup, for a three-hour drive on an American-built highway (as sweet as I-95) to a small village called Pichnil. Bowman, Knights and I follow in a separate vehicle. To handle the increase in trafficking, the rangers recently built a substation just outside the village, a one-room, lantern-lighted shed.

The usual WildAid patrol on a three-day shift of prowling and camping in the jungle has five men, but for this part of Bokor, the team has been doubled. To the north of us is an ex-Khmer Rouge commander who is widely suspected in the murder of three Western tourists. To the south, an uncleared minefield. We enter the jungle on an ancient logging path in single file. Ek Phyrum, the Cambodian team leader, orders five men to take the front and the rest to secure the rear.

Hand signals, I am instructed, are critical in the jungle. Bowman has been teaching Ek and his men how to communicate silently. A clenched fist held up means ''Stop.'' A hand over the mouth followed by a pointing finger means ''Keep quiet; I hear something over there; take cover.'' We practice it a couple of times. Given our dark clothes and camouflage, our entire platoon could melt silently into the trees in a few seconds.

To pace ourselves, we take five-minute breaks every hour for a swig of water. At a bend in the road, Ek flashes an urgent hand-over-mouth signal. We all withdraw and seconds later hear the puttering of a moped up the trail. The first few rangers, their rifles at their sides, step suddenly from the bush, stunning the driver and his passenger. Bowman beams with pride as the rangers follow the script of their training, securing the scene, checking for weapons and leaving the two poachers no choice but to follow their commands and step away from their equipment.

Both of the men are military police. The moped driver, wearing a baseball cap declaring ''Camel Trophy Adventure Wear,'' insists he hasn't been poaching, even as a ranger unties a saddle bag. Out tumbles a limp muntjac, a tiny deer that is a protected animal in Cambodia. The policemen are informed that they are under arrest.

Through an interpreter, the older poacher says that the muntjac would fetch a good price on the black market, about 6,000 riels from a middleman who would sell it to a restaurant that serves endangered animals. I ask him to repeat himself, thinking the real price has been lost in translation. No, no, he says, 6,000 riels. Back in Phnom Penh, I received 4,000 riels for one dollar.

The police officer and his companion get a lecture from the WildAid rangers about the need for wildlife preservation. Every poacher gets one. In Cambodia, the case for protecting animals is built on cultural pride and religious history. In America, we still cope with the Puritanical view of nature as a place God commanded us to take ''dominion'' over, but here Buddhism makes the renewed respect for the environment a little easier to swallow. Both officers seem actually ashamed by the end of the sermonette. The poachers nod in agreement, complaining at one point just how long it took to catch a muntjac.

Then the rangers impose a fine. The officer's moped will be seized for 10 days -- for a working man, a devastating punishment. He bows his head as the rangers produce a form containing a pledge never to poach again. The officer signs it by applying his thumbprint.

On that first day, we make a dozen such busts as we hike a good 10 kilometers into the jungle. More than once, the rangers catch one poacher only to have another show up a few minutes later. For a while, the poachers have to stand in line to await their lecture and the thumbprinting of the pledge.

In every case, Ek carries out the procedures while Bowman stands apart and watches. He occasionally takes notes about the rangers' careless use of guns (more than one had the habit of capping his AK-47 with the tip of his index finger) or talking too loudly while on a silent march. Another infraction was bathing naked in a river during a lunch break. It's too easy to get caught off guard by poachers and shot, Bowman explains. But after days of hiking in the hot sun and sleeping in sweat-drenched cammies inside a humid mosquito net, I can testify, it's not so easy to choose between a swim in the river and a bullet in the head.

Toward sundown, deep in the jungle, we cross the Koh Sla river and then head up a rising path. A poacher carrying a chain saw, with what looks like a rifle slung across his chest, crests the hill just as we do. He shouts out when he sees us and bolts into the bush.

Ek cries out to take cover, and three rangers drop their packs and sprint into the jungle. He is probably not alone, and we are ordered to stay put. Crouched down, we wait, now quite attuned to every snap and crack. As the minutes pass, my quickening breath slows, and a cultural déjà vu sweeps over me. I am hunkered down, a mere 60 miles from Vietnam, with a couple of Western ''advisers'' working with the ''good'' locals to go into the jungle and hunt down the ''bad'' ones. It's a crazy feeling. Call it imperial nostalgia.

Ten tense minutes later, the rangers return. They lost the poacher, but only because he dropped the real booty they sought -- the expensive chain saw, which is now brought forward proudly. Knights is delighted. To put it mildly, it won't be easy for this poacher to tell his boss that he just lost an $800 chain saw. Maybe both of them will find some other illegal trade less harmful to this habitat: drugs, Angkor Wat artifacts, teenagers.

Being so deep in the jungle, Ek decides not to carry back the evidence. (In a locker at park headquarters are 70 chain saws, a king's ransom, kept under perpetual guard.) Ek opts for what Bowman calls a ''chain saw massacre.'' A large flat stone is found and each ranger takes a turn at bashing the appliance, as if it is a brotherhood ritual. Wood chips and straw gather around the wreckage. A fire is lighted, and the combustible parts -- the fuel tank and the oil-slicked engine -- are consumed in a blindingly silver conflagration as titanium bits flare into nearly invisible smoke.

As the sun sets, we hang our hammocks. Given the day's events, the rangers and their AK-47's array themselves around us like points on a clock. Each of us lies quietly, waiting in vain for the viscous sweat lacquered on our flesh to evaporate. Sleep comes in fits and starts, not from fear of the new predators lurking in the jungle but from the old ones -- the cobras, the tigers, the sun bears, the pythons. By day, there was a ''Wild Kingdom''-like thrill upon discovering their scat, finding their paw prints or stepping over their squirming signatures on the trail. But by night, with every odd and startling sound, the iconic images resurface. Do these animals possess even so much as a mouthful of gratitude for all the good work we are doing on their behalf?

Just as business has globalized, it was inevitable that environmentalism would, too. WildAid is only one example of the expansion of environmentalism along the same routes (both legal and illegal) that trade has followed. Strange bedfellows have found each other, forming alliances that please both the greens who want to protect habitats and the financiers who are eager to preserve stable markets.

Some of these alliances have grown quite intimate. In 1999, Cambodia was one of the worst timber offenders, clear-cutting massive swaths of jungle to undersell abroad. That year, the big donors to Cambodia -- mainly the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank -- insisted that their roughly $1.5 billion in aid be linked to improvements in forest conservation. Part of the deal involved appointing an environmental group known as Global Witness to independently monitor for compliance. The relationship has been dicey. After Global Witness reported this spring that illegal logging was still clearing Cambodia's devastated forests, Eva Galabru, a senior staff member in Phnom Penh, stepped out of her office in June to have a car screech to a halt. Several masked men jumped out, beating and kicking her. They fled without touching her purse. The next day she received a one word e-mail message: QUIT.

Cambodia's politics resembles Afghanistan's. Provincial warlords can be ruthless in their abuse of local power. On the other hand, outside groups or N.G.O.'s (nongovernmental organizations) quickly discover they can also wield national power. Because N.G.O.'s donate so much money to the federal government of Cambodia, the country has what one embassy official called ''an N.G.O. economy.'' I saw this up close when I returned to Phnom Penh.

Nothing is more evident of their power than Suwanna Gauntlett's development of what is called the Mobile Unit, or the M.U. Using detectives, cops and rangers borrowed from different departments of the Cambodian government, this WildAid-trained unit is devoted to catching the middlemen in the illegal wildlife traffic. Over the course of two days, we raid everything from remote farms where hogtied animals are hidden under piles of straw to town restaurants where bagged animals are found in broom closets. It amounts to nothing less than Gauntlett's own private wildlife police force. Like the park rangers, these cops are paid by the government but receive substantial income supplements from WildAid, as well as food, health insurance, uniforms and even bonuses awarded per day in the jungle or on urban raids.

And Gauntlett's power is growing. The mayor of the capital, an acquaintance of hers, has declared all consumption of endangered wildlife in Phnom Penh a crime. One of the country's most powerful politicians, Senator Nhim Vanda, maintains a private zoo of big animals as an emblem of his power. Gauntlett's M.U. seized two of his new tigers in a raid, along with a van. She has ignored his efforts to retrieve them. Imagine Trent Lott having his property seized by police officers working for an environmental group.

On the morning after I come out of the jungle, the M.U. picks me up in a three-truck caravan. Armed with fresh search warrants, seven cops, four wildlife officers and Gauntlett, we speed to the first village, Ream. Gauntlett has that irritable impatience common among kids of inherited wealth. When the trucks get separated, she yells at her personal translator to tell the driver to speed up and then orders him to slow down because she has a bad back.

''Once word gets out that our S.U.V.'s have been spotted,'' Gauntlett explains to me, ''the dealers get on their cellphones and warn all the others in the area.''

The front of the restaurant in Ream as much as advertises its gourmet specialties with a huge aquarium packed with a meaty tangle of pickled snakes. The trucks pull up with a literal screech, and the cops spill out. In some ways, urban restaurateurs are more dangerous than jungle poachers because they are often more belligerent. As we storm inside, the cops lower and point their guns. The wildlife experts pour through the back of the restaurant, all spare and empty bedrooms. The woman in charge of the place screams at the armed police. Her five waitresses, all girls in their early teens, fan out to distract us.

One of the officers cries out, and we all rush to the backyard where several long-tail macaques sit in small cages. In another room are turtles the size of car tires and a pile of yellow see-through nylon bags, each squirming with a cobra. One hisses and strikes constantly, its bag darting insanely across the wooden floor. Another cobra sits up in classic charmer fashion but remains perfectly still, unable to hiss because the old woman has taken a precaution common in wildlife restaurants. She has stitched the cobra's mouth shut with string.

As we load the animals into the veterinarian's truck, the woman screams at the officers because they are taking the chains she bought to hold the monkeys. She reluctantly signs the pledge with her thumbprint, aware that next time she'll face fines or jail time.

And there will be a next time, because it will be hard for her to change her business. Through a translator, I learn the full range of delights available here. The ''waitresses'' are 13- and 14-year-old prostitutes. This restaurant is where a workingman goes for a big night of complete virile satisfaction. Dinner is served at one of the tables. Then afterward, a special dessert is presented to increase potency. This might mean bringing a live cobra to the table, where a group of men can enjoy tormenting it into a state of complete rage. The belief is that if the animal is violently agitated, more of its powerful sexual hormones will be released. The snake is then beheaded and the body squeezed of its blood like a dishrag until it fills a whiskey jigger. A man drinks it in a single swallow and then chooses one of the girls to accompany him to one of those tidy back bedrooms.

After securing the animals in the van, we drive off in silence. I can't resist the rude observation that while we have saved some turtles, we have left the girls behind.

''In Cambodia, one tries to impose order where one can,'' Gauntlett says with a shrug. It's not exactly a glib remark. Everything is being rewritten here. Every law. Every custom. Wild forward leaps can be seen in odd ways. People in the countryside, who have never seen a telephone pole, never will. Cellphones already dominate the most distant outback.

At times, it seems that perhaps a similar thing might be happening with environmental law. The next day, the M.U. and I cruise for five hours, stopping at villages that dot the Vietnam border. We raid the home of one of the area's richest men -- a two-story house with a walled yard and two generators. He has fled by the time we arrive, leaving his wife to take the heat. But she offers the M.U. a deal in return for a reduced fine. She squeals on her competitor in a village an hour away.

As our caravan drives across a long levy to the outback of Kompong Cham province, with Vietnam visible in the distance, folks gather at the road to stare at a rare sight: cars. In this area, the rich drive old bent Schwinns. The most powerful guy in the village, the dealer we are after, has a small hut but displays his wealth in a form common in Cambodia and one Donald Trump would recognize. His hut has no doors, but a full-length wardrobe is on display, its glass doors revealing enviable piles of folded shirts, a TV, a boombox and liquor. Like the last dealer, the Donald of Kompong Cham has fled the scene, leaving his wife to face the cops.

In a back shed we find plenty of wildlife, including six pangolins -- anteaters that, when frightened, curl into scaly wheels so that they fit snugly in the same yellow poacher's bags the cobras had been in. We cut them loose and cool them off with buckets of fresh water.

It's late, and the M.U. officer sits the wife down at a table outside her house for the standard lecture, notification of a fine next time and the signing of the pledge with a thumbprint. Most of the village has turned out for this curious new ritual -- about 70 men, women and mostly naked children. They stand around, watching in awe what must seem a strange, even frightening proceeding.

The process is slow, and through it all I notice that the wife and many of the villagers are staring at the writing stitched over the shirt pocket of the M.U. officer's uniform. ''WildAid,'' it says. To them it must be an exotic word in a bizarre alphabet, as challenging to decode as Khmer is to me.

Throughout the raids, I see that puzzled look on many faces. I wonder if an earlier generation of my countrymen in this neighborhood hadn't seen the same expression, too. Of course, the consequences of WildAid's interventions are slightly different: getting your moped seized for 10 days is not quite like getting napalmed. Still, there are moments (like punishing a lady for having a turtle while abandoning child prostitutes) that history's repetition here seems especially farcical.

On the other hand, the WildAid rangers clearly relish their jobs and are devoted to them for wholesome Buddhist reasons and for national pride. In Cambodia, the iconic animals -- the elephant, the tiger, the snake, the monkey, the sun bear -- are seen as magical and divine. And these days, Cambodia is infused with a certain joy, the kind associated with rebirth and fresh beginnings. Pol Pot's insane scheme of restarting the calendar at Year Zero was almost completed. In that sense, the timing is right. The lecture every local gets makes sense to the people hearing it. The country is starting over again, and the people are eager for ways to talk about it. All creation stories begin with the beasts.

''These are the animals of my ancestors,'' says one of the Cambodians on the patrol who speaks English. His sentence ends there, as if no other reason were needed to save the jungle.

As the crowd continues to edge closer to the outdoor table, the Donald's wife looks up from the wildlife officer's pocket. I strain to see if the look on her face might betray a sense of recognition or of revelation, whether what is happening here is another passing Western ''mission'' or a new Cambodian order. But it is hard to see. Twilight is coming quickly. Generators are beginning to rumble all across Cambodia. Here and there, beside the prestigious wardrobes, dangling bulbs sizzle with a dim light against the falling darkness.