People need to be aware that when you see a full page ad in a magazine or newspaper for a conservation group and I would rather support a group that puts in every dollar that is donated into their projects.
The fact that the animal may be critically endangered can actually make the purchase more lucrative, as the rarer the animal, the more potent it’s good fortune and healing properties.
Like the drug trade, wildlife trafficking is big business.
In Cambodia, traffickers wait on the outskirts of forests waiting for village hunters to return with whatever their snares have trapped. The sale of rare and endangered animals is one of very few options they have to provide for their family.
This is the vicious circle that Perth woman Rebecca Tilbrook wants to break.
For 15 years as a conservationist, Ms Tilbrook has seen Cambodia’s wildlife decimated by the illegal trade and last year decided to start her own charity, For the Animals.
“I don’t want to see the tiger or the elephant wiped off the face of the earth during my lifetime,” she said.
“I just think that it’s unconscionable that we are even faced with that possibility, and it’s a very real possibility.”
When Ms Tilbrook first arrived in Cambodia more than a decade ago she was confronted with wild animals being tortured and sold on every street corner.
She says the practices have since moved underground, behind closed doors.
Bears are kept alive in restaurants waiting for customers to order bear paw soup, a delicacy at $300 a bowl. Chefs cut off each paw one at a time, leaving the animal alive, slowly bleeding to death, to ensure the meat remains fresh for the next order.
Other bears are sent to bile farms in China or Vietnam where they live in “crush cages” designed to squeeze every last drop of bile from their pancreas out through the needle of an old catheter, until they stop producing it and die.
Macaque monkeys are yet another culinary delicacy, served either screaming or drugged, strapped beneath the table with a hole for their head to poke through.
Their skull is then removed and their brains eaten alive.
The popular belief is that meat is the healthiest when the animal is alive, and that the more fear an animal experiences at death, the tastier its flesh becomes.
Almost every part of the endangered Asian Tiger can be used and are sold for a hefty fee, including the penis which is brewed as a tea to cure impotence.
According to the conservation group Wildlife Alliance, it is likely that there are no tigers left in the wild in Cambodia.
Its records say that the last time a tiger was sighted in the Cardamoms – one of the last continuous forests in South East Asia – was in 2007.
“We need to take direct action and we need to do it quickly,” says Ms Tilbrook.
“We’re running out of time.”
But while Ms Tilbrook has felt an overwhelming response from Australian people who want to help, she says that donating to just any animal charity is not the best way to enact change.
“My foundation For the Animals was a reaction to the waste and misuse of a lot of funds that I’ve [experienced] working in the conservation world for over 15 years,” she said.
“Funds are being wasted on overheads like pedantic research, huge salaries, plush offices, business class travel, lavish parties; and things that I feel feed the ego instead of accomplishing the mission that’s at hand.
“There are grass-roots charities doing important work on the ground and no one’s ever heard of them because they’re not spending all their budgets promoting themselves.
“People need to be aware that when you see a full page ad in a magazine or newspaper for a conservation group, that’s a very expensive expenditure, and I would rather support a group that has the integrity to put every dollar that is donated into their projects.”
For the Animals sends all money raised in Australia to the charity Wildlife Alliance in Cambodia and have not needed to focus on advertising and fundraising – until now.
While the foundation has been financially backed by an individual benefactor, this fund will dry up by the end of 2013.
“I just believe there will be others out there who will want to support this work,” she said.
Wildlife Alliance have seized over 52,000 wild animals from poachers with more than 20,000 having been rehabilitated at their Pnom Tamao Rescue Centre since 2001, which aims to release them back in to the wild. About 2100 poachers have been charged.
They have preserved 1.7 million acres of natural forest that is home to many endangered and threatened species, re-planting over 500,000 native trees in areas destroyed by slash-and-burn agriculture and cancelling 34 commercial land concessions for agricultural plantations and mining projects.
However, Ms Tilbrook says the biggest challenge has been changing Cambodian attitudes towards conservation.
“It became very clear that if we wanted to protect the Cardamom forest that we would also have to set up the communities with alternative forms of income so they didn’t have to poach to feed their children,” she said.
Many Cambodians fled Phnom Penh in the 1970s to escape the mass genocide that claimed more than two million lives at the hands of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, leaving them little choice but to poach wildlife and slash-and-burn the natural forest to plant crops.
With the average Cambodian wage at $US1 a day, risking up to 10 years in jail for selling an endangered Pangolin or a square metre of rare Rosewood for hundreds of dollars becomes a calculated risk.
The Alliance have since rebuilt the Sovanna Baitong village, a place where 187 families who previously relied solely on unsustainable and illegal practices call home.
Villagers have been given a hectare of land each, as well as seeds, chickens, education and healthcare for their children.
“Now I have a school for my children and my house is close to the hospital,” a Sovanna Baitong man said.
“I used to be scared of the ranger because he could put me in jail and take me away from my family,” said a woman.
“I don’t have to be scared anymore because I don’t kill the animals.”
“I have five children, now they are all studying at school [and] my eldest son is in Pnom Penh studying at university,” said another.
“When I lived in the forest, one of my sons passed away, but here we have a hospital and medicine.”
Ms Tilbrook says that while many Cambodians are still adjusting to fully understand the conservation message, she recognises that many Australians do.
“It’s as easy as giving some money to a group that will use it really well,” she said.
“It’s not just about loving animals… it’s about feeling that they deserve to be here on this earth with us.”
You can donate to Wildlife Alliance through the Australian based foundation For the Animals. All donations go directly to Wildlife Alliance projects in Cambodia.
Jerrie Demasi was sent to Cambodia courtesy of For the Animals.