What if your country had laws that were seldom enforced? What if your protectors were struggling to make ends meet, uneducated and easily bribed. Who protects the environment, when it cannot speak for itself? Here I question if my understanding of environmental protection is too soft in a world full of hard knocks?

During a university field trip to the southern Cardamom Mountains in Cambodia, our group was accompanied by conservation rangers. We picked them up from their base in Kampot and the rangers boarded our mini van, armed with semi-automatic weapons. Learning about the rise of armed conservation area protection rangers is one thing, but having the reality of trekking through the forest with a man with a gun is another. So how the hell did this situation arise?

When the law is weak, enforcement minimal and the stakes high, direct intervention conservation groups are, as I’ve discovered, not uncommon. In the bay of Koh Sey a sunken long boat tells the story of clashes between the exploiters, and conservationists. This tiny island straddling Vietnam and Cambodia is the base of Marine Conservation Cambodia (MCC). On this island passionate foreigners have created a tactical patrol of Cambodian waters for illegal Vietnamese fishermen and destructive trawlers that decimate the precious and exploited coral reefs in the Kep archipelago.

The sunken boat is a reminder that sometimes the encounters between these groups get nasty. Late night open water chases, rock throwing and boat ramming. In the MCC’s own words the incidence of violence has exacerbated. First they exchanged words, then they threw rocks, then one of the MCC volunteers used a sling shot and you guessed, then the trawling boats started using sling shots. Ever so slightly the violence escalated. The fisheries officers who at times accompany the volunteer MCC patrol are the only ones to carry firearms and according to MCC rarely use them – thankfully.

Who are the conservationists fighting? What started out as family owned long boat operators, with poor and desperate people trying to make a meager living has turned into organised bands of poachers. Still the boats are full of just as desperate people with limited ability to make an alternative living, they fish and sometimes fall into debt with trawler operators with no other option but to work on the boats.

All this effort begs the question, are these tactics working? With limited ability to enforce the law on their own, Cambodian authorities now officially recognise MCC’s efforts. The MCC regularly track their progress through marine surveys and data collection and make a solid case that their efforts have decreased illegal fishing, reduced impacts of trawling and have assisted ecosystem recovery. Probably more heartening is their recent involvement in declaring a marine fisheries management area around the archipelago, now within the bowels of the Cambodian government for approval.

A much larger and well resourced Non Government Organisation (NGO), Wildlife Alliance monitors Cambodia’s illegal trade in wildlife products, mostly on route to China for use in traditional medicine. They respond to an anonymous hotline to report wildlife being trafficked, smuggled and sold illegally in markets and restaurants. Wildlife Alliance are the NGO support behind the armed conservation rangers who accompanied our group in the Cardamom Mountains. While Wildlife Alliance don’t directly arm the rangers, they lobbied for the ranger program to be installed by the Cambodian government and support these positions via financial incentives on top of the ranger’s salaries as incentive to discourage corruption and on selling of valuable information. However, what happens when things go wrong? While I was in Cambodia three people, including a ranger, a policeman and a conservationist were killed by illegal loggers, on the border with Vietnam. These types of incidents are uncommon……but not that uncommon – sobering.

I can’t help thinking that this situation is impossible. Are things so far gone that no amount of weapons will change anything.  And if so, is it the buyers, the sellers, the policy makers, or the conservationists who are ultimately responsible when human lives are lost?