British conservationist fights to save threatened seahorses in Cambodia
British conservationist Paul Ferber is leading the fight to save seahorses from extinction in Cambodia.
The 39-year-old, who underwent police training in Britain, has lived on Ach Seh Island for three years, and said: "The seahorse faces an enormous variety of threats."
He is trying to protect its ravaged environment against an armada of illegal trawlers, crab traps and divers in sleek longboats specifically targeting seahorses and related species.
The seahorse is a master of camouflage, unrivalled as a hunter and a much-loved figure of ancient myths and legends, but may be spiralling toward annihilation after surviving beneath the waves for some 40 million years.
The tropical seas around Ach Seh Island reveal both the seahorse's threatened state - tens of millions are harvested globally each year - and possible ways to save the species from extinction.
Mr Ferber dives in the waters t aking photographs and detailed notes, and watching for his main enemy, trawlers from neighbouring Vietnam dragging miles-long nets with mesh so fine that even creatures smaller than seahorses cannot escape.
"Big, nasty Vietnamese (boats). It's either a seine trawler or a pair of them," he says of vessels that leave behind a lifeless ocean. If equipped with electrified nets, they can even stun and suck in living things burrowed in sea beds.
A powerfully built man with a pair of seahorses tattooed on his chest, Mr Ferber can call his contact in the Cambodian fisheries department, hoping its speedboat can rush from the mainland to arrest any intruders.
He said before such co-operation began, he and his team confronted illegal fishermen alone, armed only with "a slingshot and a bunch of rocks".
He said they were shot at with AK-47 rifles and even a spear gun, and one of their boats was rammed and sunk. Death threats continue.
While Mr Ferber praises supportive officials in Phnom Penh and within the local fisheries department, he alleges corruption among police and some local government officials tasked with protecting the marine environment.
"It's a cat-and-mouse game," he says of the almost daily battle against encroachers.
"Seahorses are increasing in our area but declining everywhere else," said Mr Ferber, who discovered the devastation of South-east Asia's seas as a dive instructor in Thailand and Cambodia.
On Ach Seh Island, he has built a rudimentary station and quarters for his Thai wife, five children, staff, young volunteers and visiting marine biologists, all living together communal-style. His group, Marine Conservation Cambodia, is supported chiefly by the International Conservation Fund of Canada.
Illegal fishing within the roughly 31 square miles that the group patrols has dropped dramatically, he says. Most of the area will become a marine conservation zone in mid-2017.
Seahorses, caught in waters around the world, are sold mainly for Asian traditional medicine, especially in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam and China.
Amanda Vincent, a Canadian marine biologist and founder of Project Seahorse, estimates that more than 20 million are sold for Asian traditional medicine each year.
Lesser numbers end up as key rings, encased in jewellery or other curios, or in aquariums, with the United States the world's top buyer for the pet trade.
Data from CITES, the international monitor of the wildlife trade, shows that more than 630,000 were imported in the US from 2004 to 2014.
In Chinese traditional medicine, seahorses ground into powder or dried and eaten whole are believed to cure everything from kidney disease to baldness, despite a lack of scientific evidence. Rice wine with seahorses stuffed inside the bottles is advertised as a powerful sex tonic to "turn a man into an all-night Romeo".
"It's a race between the conservation ethos and the rape-and-pillage ethos," said Ms Vincent, who chairs the seahorse expert group of the Switzerland-based International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The legal export trade, she says, has been greatly reduced globally, but illegal fishing continues to threaten many of the 41 seahorse species.
Experts are reluctant to make predictions about possible extinctions but agree many populations are in retreat.
Although Mr Ferber lacks academic training - among other occupations, he worked as a florist in London - and Ms Vincent says he is still formalising his scientific research, she believes his efforts will result in excellent long-term studies.
She praises his role as a frontline conservationist, calling him "not one of life's bystanders".
She said: "Paul has enormous courage in tackling real problems with minimal resources. I hope he can find a way to stay effective while staying safe. If I had a Paul in every country where we work, my life would be much easier."