Pol Pot: He Talks To The AnimalsApril 3, 2006
He may not initially spring to mind as your kind-hearted Khmer equivalent of Doctor Dolittle, but Brother Number One is often attributed as playing, however inadvertently, the role of protector of Cambodia’s once-abundant wildlife.
Most books with sections describing environmental and ecological exploitation in this country point out that Cambodia has retained a bigger share of its primary forests and the animals living within these habitats than any other country in the region. The Cardamom Mountains have been singled out as an area of outstanding biodiversity and scientific interest, and are commonly described as the largest single stand of upland virgin forest in mainland SE Asia. And it’s often written that part of the success in preventing habitat destruction and preserving animal populations was the influence of the infamous Pol Pot. But rather than being some modern day St Francis of Assisi, dressed in black PJ’s instead of coarse brown robes, the late Saloth Sar had a more indirect role in protecting all creatures great and small.
The conventional wisdom on the matter is that the Khmer Rouge unintentionally acted more effectively in safeguarding the nation’s flora and fauna than Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth could dream of. These accidental animal lovers sporting recycled car tyre sandals affected things in three separate phases: The effects of the struggle to overcome the US-backed Lon Nol forces crippled the economy, thus limiting development, deforestation for timber and the opening up of new lands for agriculture; then, the dark years of Democratic Kampuchea forced everyone to work the land, aside from a few hardy young adults arranged into work crews ordered into the forests to cut lumber; and finally, the retreat of the KR cadres following the invasion-liberation by Vietnamese troops led Pol Pot’s men to fall (or rather climb) into more secluded areas, heading up into the hills.
Hills and forests generally go hand in hand in the Cambodian landscape. Here the DK troops based themselves, making tactical progress in the rainy season and getting a hiding when things dried up enough for the Phnom Penh government’s troops to advance with tanks and heavy artillery. The holed up soldiers enjoyed nothing more of a quiet late afternoon than planting landmines, spreading them willy-nilly across their front yards and beyond. These unmapped ‘sleeping sentinels’ again by default led to the survival of the animals living in these forested havens.
So if we follow the received wisdom regarding the wildlife that remains today in the Kingdom, the influence of Pol Pot’s KR movement was, aside from the unfortunate beasts treading on an anti-personnel mines, largely a blessing in disguise. Yet how well does this picture sit alongside the reality of large scale logging to finance rearguard KR activities in the Pailin area? Or the open sale of the skins and bones of incredibly rare animals in former staunchly KR areas in northern Cambodia? Or for that matter Democratic Kampuchea?s own Ministry of Commerce invoices that list in black and white the pillage of the heavyweights of endangered species: tigers and elephants?
On deeper examination, it becomes ever clearer that far from protecting Cambodia’s biological resources, Khmer Rouge policy actively and systematically stripped forests of animals for sale at bargain basement prices on the open market or export to preferred nations. The highly regarded historian, Ben Kiernan, has referred to the KR’s role in the global trade in medicinally prized body parts of animals close to extinction as ‘Cambodia’s fauna fire sale.’
The ‘Guns for Pangolins Scandal’ seems to have been conveniently swept under the headline writer’s carpet (along with all the other anteater tabloid near-misses); a casualty of the monochrome common knowledge so often repeated. Everyone knows of the reports of enormous harvests of rice being shipped to China in the late 70′s whilst those who’d toiled so hard in the paddies of Cambodia were sustained with but a few mouthfuls of rice porridge slop. The ‘standard line’ is also at odds with the existence of written documented records during the period of Pol Pot’s control, which does not fit the simplified perception of a maniacal regime that eschewed the written word and other signs of the decadence of learning. Yet more surprising perhaps was the shady DK enterprise named Khmer Company for Foreign Trade, abbreviated to ForTra, monikers that smack of imperialist commerce not a Maoist agronomy.
The Chinese preoccupation with aphrodisiacs and the KR’s desire for weaponry and industrial aid from its communist allies fuelled the capture and export of a variety of species, but the humble gecko seems to have triggered the trade. Geckoes (the big elusive ones that make the familiar cry, not the skinny chaps that eat bugs from the ceilings) apparently have properties that make our Chinese brethren feel in the mood for love, so when some of Mao’s technical advisers were supposed to be supervising improvements to latex processing facilities on a Memot rubber plantation, they were forever dropping tools to chase the prized lizards whenever they heard the animal’s characteristic ‘tuk-gai’ call. It seems Pol Pot himself no less had to intervene; the big man wasn’t having no pesky scaly critters derail his revolutionary zeal – ‘if the Chinese need geckoes, let them have geckoes; go see how many they want,’ is a paraphrasing of his response.
Precisely 3003 gecko heads formed the first consignment, shipped in October 1976, following a trade agreement between Beijing and DK in August of that year formalising China’s requests for natural medicinal products, including the bones of tigers, panthers and elephants, as well as pangolin scales and of course dried geckoes. The October shipment also listed two cases containing the bones of at least ten tigers and was in Kiernan’s words merely ‘the start of an unprecedented plunder of Cambodia’s ecology.’
Pol Pot’s words were put into action presumably with teams of agile lads in the forests foraging tirelessly to catch the creatures to assure the fortitude of every Chinaman’s romantic advances, for by March 1977 enough had been collected to amount to a whopping 18 tons of deer horn, seven tons of pangolin scales and two tons of tortoiseshell – it’s hard just to fathom the numbers of animals involved let alone envisage the scale of the hunt for so many creatures that do not readily display themselves for the taking. Later shipments, invoiced at prices tens sometimes hundreds of times below the going rate, boasted six tons of monkey bones, exactly 24,760 pieces of dried gecko (over half a ton), several tons of python skins, bear and panther skins, and more deer horn.
So what’s a few bears and (black) panthers here and there? Surely pythons are pretty common, monkeys are often seen as vermin and geckoes are so run of the mill that everyone’s heard one calling at night. And deer were once so abundant that in a single month way back in 1639 that Dutch traders purchased 125,000 skins; hundreds of years before Pol Pot was a twinkle in his father’s eye, which illustrates the age-old culling of wildlife and interestingly suggests a level of infrastructure and organisation more advanced than imagined some 200 years before the French moved in.
But more worrying for conservationists are the records of over 1.5 tons of elephant bones – that’s 3300 pounds in old money, or 235 stone if you like. Wild elephants have finally been confirmed in the Elephant Mountain range they gave their name to. The recent confirmation of small herds of wild pachyderms in southern Cambodia’s uplands spares any inconsistency with the name Elephant Mountains, but these giants of the forests are far, far less abundant than when DK leadership ushered in their dark years.
More than 80 tiger skins and their supposedly potent bones were also shipped. It may not sound like many, and indeed these invoices in the Cambodian National Archives are by no means complete, but when considering that the total number of tigers living within the borders of Cambodia in the late 1990′s was estimated at around 80 animals, the scale of the decimation becomes apparent. Their scarcity is also apparent in the paucity of evidence of their existence: the first camera trap to capture a tiger on film was a great relief, and Bokor’s rangers have to date identified only three tigers from infra-red triggered equipment.
Pol Pot then, far from being an unwitting animal lover and pioneering eco-warrior was nothing of the sort; he didn’t talk to the animals, he slaughtered the animals. And his destructive influence outlasted his ill- conceived attempts at structural social revolution: Kiernan states in his landmark 1996 publication ‘The Pol Pot Regime’, ‘All over Cambodia, retreating DK forces set fire to granaries and drove hundreds of thousands of people into the hills’, and where they hid, they plundered what remained in the forests after Brother Number One’s sanctioned purge of super rare wildlife.
Whether supporters and sympathisers of Pol Pot or his bitterest enemies, the pressures on natural resources meant something had to give. ‘Normal’ folk soon returned in (relative) peace to the plains, but those siding with the KR often remained up in the woods. The big fish reaped huge margins from wholesale timber sales, with the lesser beings removing logs and creatures on a more human scale.
Across the land, wherever you find higher ground, you found trees, natural hideaways for wildlife and KR rebels. This relationship led the Phnom Penh government to round up young men and order them to clear forested hills, with the stated purpose being to root out Pol Pot’s men. Those who refused or showed reluctance were perceived as showing sympathy for the enemy ? which of course wasn?t viewed too highly. Like GWB, you’re either with us or against us. What became of the wood cut from innumerable hectares of forest can only be speculated upon.
Pull out a map of Cambodia showing relief and you’ll spot many a notorious KR lair: in the Cardamoms you had Pailin, Snung, Koh Kralor and Samloat; the northwest border follows the natural upland barrier of the Dangrek Range, stretching from Thmar Pouk through the areas of O Smach, the infamous Anlong Veng and on to Preah Vihear; heading south are the hills of Phnom Kulen and Kbal Spean just north of Siem Reap; in Kampot, the KR were holed up in Phnom Voar, where the three backpackers were held after the 1994 kidnapping near Kompong Trach; genteel Kep was less than a decade ago considered unsafe for overnighting due to KR presence up in them thar hills; Bokor National Park is another vast area (spanning four provinces) where remnants of the forces from the dark side hung on.
Less publicised pockets also existed even after the amnesty offered to those still sided with the KR. A village in just such an area on Route 4 under an hour from Phnom Penh used to specialise in the live animal trade (‘selling all kinds of endangerous species’); the bounty from the nearby forests and bush had provided quite a display, almost like a free zoo. Until it was closed down by conservation NGO’s around 2001, it was possible to buy for remarkably small sums such graceful creatures as eagles, leopards, the truly bizarre Cambodian bear-cat, tiger cubs and gibbons.
Many hilly regions are now denuded of trees and support little more wildlife than a few bird species and the ubiquitous long-tailed lizards that resemble mini iguanas. The Khmer Rouge influence on ecological destruction is often misrepresented in the descriptions (simplified in the name of brevity) that appear in much printed material about Cambodia; more realistic is to surmise that before, during and after Pol Pot’s time at the helm the forests and the wildlife they supported were intentionally and willingly plundered.
This is of course not to say that every person involved was die hard KR to the core; neither is it true that people’s allegiances, motives and ideological naivety hadn’t changed over time, nor that every peasant who caught and sold animals or logs had indeed ever been associated with the Pol Pot movement. Furthermore not all those who once held positions of authority in DK are necessarily bad eggs, clearly evidenced in the number of such individuals in the higher echelons of today’s power structure.
Along with the responsibility of causing some 1.6 million people to perish, Pol Pot was not then an animal lover or a beardless David Bellamy; the moon-faced dictator was no secret twitcher and the genocidal leader didn’t kindly leave saucers of milk for hedgehogs hungry after a winter in hibernation and was never seen with a parrot on his shoulder or a cat purring on his lap. Pol Pot did not talk to the animals; Pol Pot did unspeakable things to the animals.