Poaching was a serious business for Chran Thabb - until his tracking skills were put to better use protecting his former prey. He is one of 45 rangers in the remote eastern province of Mondulkiri recruited for a grassroots tourism project that uses employment incentives to encourage environmental conservation.
"Before, whenever I saw an animal in the forest, my first thought was to shoot it," said Chran, now a guide for treks around Dei Ey village, in a protected forest area in Mondulkiri.
"I don't do that any more. The animals would become extinct and I want the next generation to see them," he said.
Because of its forests, mountains and rare wildlife, rugged Mondulkiri has been targeted by the Cambodian government as an area for eco-tourism development, after lobbying by WWF. The wildlife group launched conservation projects more than four years ago in this remote region, which has been likened to Africa's Serengeti for its abundant wildlife.
WWF has recruited former hunters to put their knowledge of the forest and expert tracking skills to good use. The overall aim is to establish an environment where wildlife can recover after years of hunting, poaching and neglect. Richer wildlife, conservationists hope, will attract tourists - and, in turn, create jobs for local communities.
Most of Mondulkiri's impoverished population comprises indigenous communities who practise shifting cultivation but also grow cash crops, although this is under threat from deforestation and changing climate patterns, according to a September 2009 report by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Lack of access to education and primary healthcare are key development concerns in Mondulkiri, IOM says, with 59 percent of its population living below the poverty line, according to a 2004 study by the Cambodia Development Resource Institute and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).
"In a poor province such as Mondulkiri, eco-tourism offers a long-term alternative livelihood to combat the short-term illegal activities they do now to earn a living," said Olga van den Pol, head of WWF's eco-tourism operations in Mondulkiri province.
Wildlife in the area, which is near the border with Vietnam, was severely depleted in the 1970s and 1980s when battling Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese soldiers relied heavily on hunting for survival.
But since the launch of conservation projects, rangers are seeing an increase in wildlife for the first time in years.
Most people in the area belong to the Phnong ethnic group. Bill Herod, a development worker who works with Phnong youth, said cultural forces should operate in favour of conservation efforts.
"Phnong are more likely to see common ownership of the land, and less likely to want to hunt for wildlife on an individual basis," he said.
Given Cambodia's violent past, it is especially important to avoid using violence to deter poaching and instead focus on encouraging livelihoods, conservationists say.
In countries such as Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo, governments have resorted to heavily armed patrols in an attempt to combat poaching. But this method is increasingly being shunned.
"For a poor rural person who wishes to feed their family, no deterrent will be sufficient, but the chances of being killed are far higher," said James MacGregor, a researcher for the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development. "Guns raise the stakes but don't combat the poaching necessarily," he told IRIN.
While those employed by the projects hope their fortunes will improve, the initiatives are no panacea for the area's poverty.
Krak Sokny, a teacher and farmer in Dei Ey village, doubted the eco-tourism initiatives would reach a sufficient scale to extend benefits to locals not directly involved, but said they would instil an active interest in conservation in villagers.
And while Dei Ey and other areas appear to be on the path to recovery, other lands in the province still face serious threats from speculators and slash-and-burn practices.
Local development workers also say police and well-connected officials continue to traffic wildlife and timber with impunity.
Against these forces, villagers in Mondulkiri's eco-tourism enclaves are trying to carve out a space for themselves and adventurous tourists.
"I'm hoping there will be more tourists so we can earn money that way and not have to go hunting in the forest," said Am Pang Deap, who previously made ends meet selling fried bananas in Dei Ey, but now works at a new eco-tourism resort. "People are trying to hunt less and maintain what's left for tourists."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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