Understanding & addressing wildlife poisoning in Northern Cambodia

This post originally published on the ICCS website.

ដើម្បីអានអត្ថបទនេះជាភាសាខ្មែរសូមចូលទៅកាន់: https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.12146181.v1

The coronavirus pandemic is likely to have a variety of unforeseen implications for people and wildlife. One early trend is a reported increase in waterhole poisonings in Cambodia’s Northern Plains. This is concerning for both conservation and human health reasons. Preah Vihear province in northern Cambodia is home to the largest remaining fragments of Southeast Asia’s deciduous woodlands. These woodlands, which once carpeted mainland Southeast Asia, have disappeared elsewhere. As such, Cambodia’s Northern Plains are stronghold for some unique and threatened wildlife species. For example, the area is home to the Giant Ibis – Cambodia’s national bird, which was thought extinct until it was re-discovered in 1993. Unfortunately, three Giant Ibis (representing over 1% of the global population) have been poisoned in recent months. These poisonings can also harm farmers and their livestock, who depend on the waterholes as a critical water source.

So why might we be seeing this worrying spike in waterhole poisoning? Research conducted in 2017, by Emiel de Lange and two Cambodian students, Yim Vichet and Leang Chantheavy, may help to provide some answers. The study is available in the journal Oryx and a full text is available here.

Figure 1:  The critically endangered Giant Ibis, sitting near a waterhole in Preah Vihear province, Cambodia
Figure 1:  The critically endangered Giant Ibis, sitting near a waterhole in Preah Vihear province, Cambodia

The first documented carbofuran poisonings in Preah Vihear: a problem for people and wildlife

In 2016, in the heat of the dry season, cows in Preah Vihear province were dying seemingly without reason and farmers were complaining of diarrhoea and stomach pains. When government officials investigated they found troubling scenes: at five vital life-giving waterholes, strange purple gravel was strewn at their edges, and dead and dying animals were scattered nearby. A slender-billed vulture, one of less than 100 individuals left in Southeast Asia, was found struggling in the grass and rushed to a vet.

The bird did not survive. However, by examining the contents of its stomach in a laboratory, vets discovered that it had been poisoned by a pesticide called carbofuran. This was even more troubling, as carbofuran is extremely toxic to birds, and was banned internationally, under the Rotterdam convention, following a massacre of Europe’s farmland birds in 1998. Such poisonings not only represented a significant public health danger to farmers and their livestock; they also threatened the rare wildlife which depend on the waterholes for their survival.

At the time, conservationists could only speculate as to the causes for these events. Was it an accidental consequence of pesticide use in agriculture? Was it an intentional attack, perhaps intended to kill a cow in retaliation for a land dispute? Or a protest against conservation rules? To address this problem, we would first need to understand the root causes.

Understanding the root causes of waterhole poisonings

Emiel and his team interviewed local residents and organised group discussions in ten villages in the area, to get a broader sense of how people perceived poisoning, and to attempt to measure its prevalence. Given the sensitive nature of the behaviour, they used a mixed methods approach drawing on theory from social psychology, sensitive questioning techniques, and triangulating multiple data sources. Their conclusions have important implications for managing poisoning in Preah Vihear province, and for studying sensitive behaviours in other contexts.

1. The who, what, where, when, and why, of wildlife poisoning

“In the dry season, when the waterholes are dry, I put the poison in a coconut shell. It is a powder which I dissolve in the water and put in the shell […]. Using this poison, I used to catch a lot of birds, maybe five or six each time, and I would try three times in one season.”

This description is typical of practices documented in eight of the ten villages visited during the study. It is a method used to harvest wild meat, which is primarily consumed at home. It is considered extremely efficient, and easy to learn compared to methods such as setting traps or using guns. In the dry season, a lot of wildlife concentrates at waterholes which makes them easy targets. However, from a conservation perspective, this indiscriminate killing is concerning and witnesses reported that many important species have been affected. It is usually young men, perhaps up to the age of 30, who are using poisons, but we also heard about children playing with poisons and catching animals too. They might learn this from relatives in the village or from shopkeepers, who sometimes sell the poison repackaged in clear plastic bags for ~$0.25.

We might assume that the poorest households are using poison because of food insecurity, but the evidence for this was not clear in 2017. A more important factor in deciding whether to use poison or not seems to be how health risks are perceived. This is one of the key factors that may have changed following the outbreak of COVID-19, as migrant workers are forced to return home and no longer have employment opportunities.

Figure 2: a poisoned waterhole with a dead plaintive cuckoo. The purple carbofuran pesticide is visible on the tree trunk.
Figure 2: a poisoned waterhole with a dead plaintive cuckoo. The purple carbofuran pesticide is visible on the tree trunk.

2. Social norms and village reactions

“The villagers are all unhappy [about poisoning] […]. Last year I told everyone at a meeting to not do it and forbade the shopkeepers to sell the poison, […] but people continue to do it in secret.”

Social norms around wildlife poisoning are complex and differ from village to village. In one village, poisoning was a topic discussed freely and seemed to be quite common, while in others nobody had ever seen or heard about such a practice. Most villages lay somewhere in the middle: there were clearly groups of varying size who were using poison or who were accepting of it, while others disapproved strongly. In five villages, chiefs or other authority figures had attempted to prevent poisoning, because it destroys clean water sources and fish populations, risks people’s health, and has caused the deaths of beloved dogs, cows and chickens. They had made poisoners sign contracts promising to stop, or held village meetings to discuss the problem. One traditional doctor even suspected a young boy had been poisoned, but we couldn’t confirm this story. Many people also worry about the health effects of eating poisoned meat, and we recorded a long list of suspected symptoms. On the other hand, many believe that removing the internal organs of a poisoned animal makes the meat safe to eat.

3. The challenges of studying sensitive behaviour

“If people in the village knew this was happening, they would be unhappy as it could kill their cattle.”

Understandably, many people were reluctant to talk about poisoning. Many residents were unhappy about poisoning, and authorities have publicly acted against it in some villages. As such, those using poison may keep quiet about it to avoid social and legal repercussions. Some villages also benefit from conservation projects, such as community ecotourism businesses or organic farming projects, so village authorities may work closely with environment authorities to enforce conservation rules.

This situation raises challenges for researchers. Few people openly admitted to poisoning. Most accounts were indirect, or from those who had been negatively impacted by poisoning. Nevertheless, by carefully triangulating evidence from multiple sources, the study makes several robust qualitative conclusions, though trying to estimate prevalence of poison usage across the landscape has proved more difficult.

Figure 3: A summary of evidence collected for 9 hypotheses, showing how they vary across the 10 studied villages. Green triangles pointing upwards indicate that the hypothesis is supported, and purple triangles pointing downwards indicate it is not. The size of the shape indicates the strength of this evidence.
Figure 3: A summary of evidence collected for 9 hypotheses, showing how they vary across the 10 studied villages. Green triangles pointing upwards indicate that the hypothesis is supported, and purple triangles pointing downwards indicate it is not. The size of the shape indicates the strength of this evidence.

What does this mean for preventing waterhole poisoning in the future?

Despite the challenges of studying sensitive behaviours, the results of this study will be useful for planning interventions to reduce wildlife poisoning in the area. Local managers now understand the practices that lead to wildlife poisoning, the people involved, and their motivations. Importantly, the prevalence of this practice is now better understood, as well as the social norms and dynamics in each village, and previous efforts by local authorities to combat poisoning. All of this knowledge allows us to:

  1. Prioritise villages for intervention
  2. Identify target groups and plan how to reach them
  3. Identify potential allies to collaborate with, or use as key messengers
  4. Understand what sort of information might influence poisoners’ decision-making.

Based on the results of the study, Emiel and his collaborators at WCS Cambodia launched pilot interventions in early 2019. A full social marketing intervention has been conducted in one village, followed by extensive surveys to understand its effects. Watch this space for more news on its impact!

Finally, whether or not the recently observed increase in poisonings follows the trends described in this study remains to be seen. However, early evidence suggests that greater quantities of poison are being used than before. This might indicate that new actors with greater access to capital and commercial motivations are engaging in poisoning. A key component of our interventions to date has been to engage local communities in monitoring and reporting poisoning using a hotline, and this will continue to be critical for addressing this new challenge. High profile media coverage may also assist in encouraging greater control of trade in these deadly pesticides.

Tackling wildlife poisoning in Cambodia

In parts of Cambodia, wildlife poisoning occurs as a method of hunting for meat consumption. Changing people’s behaviour is a challenge for conservation. This post was originally published on the Edinburgh Conservation Science website.

If we want to change people’s behaviour to conserve wildlife, we need to understand how and why people think and behave as they do. To do this we can use methods and tools from disciplines that have been dealing with these questions, such as social psychology. But how do we then make use this knowledge to design effective interventions? Once again, we can draw on the accumulated decades of experience and best-practice approaches that have been developed in other fields. One such approach that has become increasingly used in conservation, with positive results is social marketing.

In parts of Cambodia, wildlife poisoning occurs as a method of hunting for meat consumption

In 2017, I conducted fieldwork to try and understand the phenomenon of wildlife poisoning in Preah Vihear province Cambodia. What we learned is that wildlife poisoning occurs as a method of hunting for meat consumption, where pesticides are placed with bait at waterholes in the dry season. This is seen as a very effective and easy method, and it can catch a wide range of species, but it also risks affecting domestic animals, fish, and reduces water availability. Broadly, people in Preah Vihear are aware of and concerned by the risks of eating poisoned meat, but there are also widespread beliefs that removing the internal organs from an animal makes it safe to eat. People are also concerned about damage to the environment, their water, their cattle and dogs, so in some villages the chiefs have tried to act against poisoning, such as by organising meetings. Nevertheless, some groups continue to use poison, predominately younger men, but also kids as young as ten. Read more about this study here.

In 2018, I conducted a three-day workshop with NGO and government staff, and members of local communities. We developed a conceptual model, compiling all our respective knowledge about this problem into a diagram, and then identified possible interventions. Some of these interventions were recommendations for new regulations on the pesticides, or for altering the patrol routes of environment rangers, but some directly targeted the beliefs, attitudes, norms, and behaviours of local communities. We further developed these using the social marketing approach.

We began by selecting three priority behaviours that we aim to change. Obviously, this includes the practice of poisoning itself, but from our conceptual model we also realised that the behaviour of other members of the community would be key to influencing hunters. Specifically, we wanted to encourage community members to report observed poisoning to a hotline, and to be vigilant in refusing poisoned meat. For each of these behaviours, we then tried to characterise the different groups that would be targeted. For example, a key group of hunters is young children aged 10-15, and a key group we’d ask to be vigilant and report poisoning are the parents of these children. For each of these groups we then examined the costs and benefits of the current behaviour, and the costs and benefits of our desired behaviour, and used these to identify potential routes to change. For example, parents might not report poisoning because they are concerned it will upset others or provoke conflict, but doing so would keep their children, community, and animals safe, and could earn them respect from village leaders. Our messaging therefore focused on the idea that by reporting poisoning you are protecting your community, and that rather than be upset, your community will be thankful.

Our messaging focused on the idea that by reporting poisoning you are protecting your community

Earlier this year, in 2019, I supported WCS in implementing a small part of our planned campaign as a pilot. This served as a case study for my own research into how NGO communications influence behaviour, and how this is mediated by local social networks. For this pilot, we targeted parents with children between the ages of 10-15 and organised an event in cooperation with local government. The event started with short talks by government officials from the departments of health, environment, and agriculture, as well as NGO staff. These talks were intended to highlight all the various risks of pesticide misuse and contamination, explain the laws around pesticide use, and to increase the salience of this issue for our audience. We also had a powerful testimony of a farmer from a nearby village who had lost cattle to poisoning.

Next we screened a short film that was produced especially for this campaign, together with a filmmaker Phearun Yin. The film told the story of a boy, Chan, who discovers that his friends have been poisoned after bathing in a waterhole. He learns that Vibol, another boy, is responsible and decides to tell the parents of the sick children. There is much debate about what to do, but eventually the parents decide to speak to Vibol’s parents about the issue. She already knows that Vibol plays with poison but didn’t think to do anything about it. Eventually, the village chief persuades them that they should call the poisoning hotline, following which environment staff come to remove the contamination and poison. They reward the kids with a certificate for their bravery in reporting and thank everyone for their cooperation. Everyone lives happily ever after!

Every aspect of this story is drawn from interviews with community members and reflects our understanding of the situation.

Every aspect of this story is drawn from interviews with community members and reflects our understanding of the situation. The key elements are that kids are playing with pesticides as a fun way to catch wildlife, and that parents aren’t doing anything about it. Yes – we even interviewed some parents who told us about this. Obviously, the risks to both health and the environment are highlighted, and we have a scene showing that illness is keeping the kids from school – something which is very important to parents. Finally, it was important to show the process of discussion and deliberation, the uncertainty about the best course of action, and the potential for conflict. This reflected the real barriers that are faced by the audience. All this is eventually resolved, and their decision to act in the desired way results in a safer environment and a happy community. Working on this film, and shooting on location with the kids, has certainly been one of the most unexpected, but also most enjoyable parts of my PhD!

Working on this film, and shooting on location with the kids, has certainly been one of the most unexpected, but also most enjoyable parts of my PhD!

After the screening, WCS staff took time to give details about the poisoning hotline and explain how it works. For example, the costs of the call would be refunded, and anonymity was assured if requested. A discussion was then held where the audience was asked to reflect on the motivations and actions of the different characters. This way we hoped to come to a shared understanding of the film and forge a public consensus that reporting poisoning is the best course of action. For members of the audience who still felt hesitant, this could show them the rest of the audience was on board. By using an emotive film, we also hoped to help the audience overcome some of the emotional barriers to action, such as apathy, or the fear of conflict. Furthermore, we wanted this to be something the audience could continue to reflect on, and share with their children, so we distributed a coloured children’s book which told the same story. We also handed out attractive stickers, and calendar leaflets, which showed our campaign logo and the hotline phone number, so that it would always be close at hand, and never far from mind.

We closed our event with a ceremony and a small party. Mimicking the final scene of our film, we asked the audience to make a public pledge of ‘good citizenship’, promising to use pesticides responsibly, and to report contamination. Pledgees received a certificate (identical to that shown in the film) signed by the commune chief, and a big poster so they can proudly show their neighbours and friends that they are a good citizen. This is based on the idea that making a commitment publicly increases the likelihood that you’ll stick to it.

This event wasn’t perfect, but represents a start in getting conservationists to think beyond awareness raising, and to be a bit more nuanced in their engagement with communities. We didn’t have a great budget for the finishing party, and maybe weren’t able to create the buzz we would have liked for the pledging ceremony. We also abandoned earlier plans to work together with the local school and make it a real parent-pupil-teacher event. Instead, it was a sort of fancier version of the kinds of community meetings that NGOs call all the time. I’m convinced that those small details can make a world of difference, but time will tell whether this little pilot will have any impact. Walking through the village several weeks later I was encouraged to see several of our posters up on people’s front doors. Doing applied research in collaboration with a conservation NGO has meant opportunities but also obligations, and this was a particularly stressful field trip trying to bring all parties together, and design all our materials in a very short timeframe, But it has also been an immensely rich experience from which I have learned a lot. Let’s hope our evaluation data will be equally illuminating.