Deep in the jungle of Cambodia’s Svay Leur province, Rith spends hours each day hunting tarantulas, which he sells in a nearby restaurant in Svay Leur, near Siem Reap, the home of the world-famous Angkor Wat temple, for 500 riels (about USD 12 cents) a piece to local customers.
Far from being a new phenomenon, Cambodians have hunted spiders for food and for traditional medicine for generations. However, spiders became a widespread source of food in Cambodia in the mid-1970s, when the starvation brought on by the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime left people with few other options for survival.
Despite their grim origins, spiders today are considered a delicacy and sold in markets and restaurants across Cambodia. While tarantulas are also eaten in Thailand, Papua New Guinea, parts of India and Venezuela, their widespread popularity in Cambodia is a unique phenomenon. In addition to being rich in protein, folic acid and zinc, they are believed to have medicinal properties. However, heavy deforestation may mean this tradition is coming to an end.
Roughly the size of a human palm, the spiders that are hunted and eaten in Cambodia are called Thai zebra tarantulas (Haplopelma albostriatum), or “apin” in Khmer. They breed in holes in the ground deep in heavily forested areas of the country. Normally hunting during the day, spider hunters also walk for hours during the night in order to find the nests, in forests in Preah Vihear province, near the Thai border, and Kampong Thom Province’s Sandan District.
To catch spiders, Rith wets the end of a small stick with gasoline and places it in the spider’s nest. The smell entices the spiders out, making it easier to catch them without having to place a hand directly inside the nest.
Although the bite of an apin is not deadly, hunting spiders can still be a dangerous business. Rith explains that sometimes hunters misidentify the nests, which can hold snakes or scorpions. Moreover, while the apin are not deadly, it is still best to avoid being bitten by one.
According to Rith: “Sometimes we are bitten by the spider so we try not to place our hands inside the nests. When the poison gets into the blood, it hurts a lot [….] We can have very high fever, and get very sick, swollen and paralyzed for one or two days. But we do nothing. We don’t know how to take the poison out. We normally go to the traditional doctor and he applies some herbs to the bite.”
Decades of civil war in Cambodia have also left the country heavily mined; estimates of the number of unexploded landmines left throughout Cambodia range from four to six million. As spiders are only found in heavily forested areas that have not necessarily yet been demined, venturing so deep into the jungle can be a risky business.
Yet in a country where more than 20 percent of the population lives on just over $1 per day, the risk for many people is worth it. A good hunter can catch approximately 100 spiders per day, which can bring in a daily wage of close to $12; even after subtracting expenses, the appeal is evident. Entire families, children included, hunt together in the forest in order to catch as many spiders as possible.
For some people, like Rith, who also works as a deminer for the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC), hunting spider is also a hobby. As he explains: “Many people catch spiders to make a living, but for some it is also their hobby as they love to eat spiders. It is like those who fish for pleasure because they like to eat fish […] We love to spend the day in the forest catching them and after, get together with friends and eat them and drink a cold beer.”
Each day, spider hunters sell their catch, still alive, to vendors in markets all across the country. One of the most popular places to find the tarantulas is the Skuon market, about 75 kilometers from the capital Phnom Penh on the road to Siem Reap. Skuon has become a popular tourist attraction in recent years, and from here hundreds of spiders are either re-sold to other markets in neighboring villages and in Phnom Penh or cooked on site in the numerous restaurants that have opened around the market, drawing locals and tourists alike.
Although they can also be grilled and served with rice and vegetables, the most popular way to cook spiders is to season them with soy sauce, garlic, salt and even sugar, and to fry them until crispy. The body, which has the most meat, is said to be the best part of the spider, although the legs and tail are eaten as well. Female spiders are favored, as their eggs are considered especially flavorful.
When not used for food, the tarantulas are also used in traditional medicine, a use that has also been documented in countries such as Mexico and India. In Cambodia, the tarantulas, which are believed to cure knee, back and breathing ailments, to increase men’s sexual prowess and energy, and to make women more beautiful, are left to marinate in rice wine for a month, before being sold by traditional doctors throughout the country.
However, perhaps the strangest use of the tarantulas is as pets for the children of spider hunters, who can be seen playing with the spiders as other children may play with a dog or a cat. Rith explains that “first they cut their teeth […] like that is safe for [the children] to play with the spiders.” Unlike many other species of tarantulas, the apin do not have urticating hairs – meaning hairs that provoke itching or skin irritations – and so are safe to play with once the teeth are removed.
Hundreds of tourists visit the Skuon market every year to see first-hand Cambodia’s biggest spider market, where local children playing with their pet tarantulas or carrying trays of fried spiders have become a tourist attraction of their own. However, the rapid rate of deforestation in Cambodia is threatening the spiders’ natural habitat and, by consequence, the overall trade in spiders.
With one of the fastest rates of deforestation in the world, Cambodia’s forest cover has decreased from 72 percent in 1973 to just 46 percent by late 2013. These high rates are due to rapid and unregulated development, including large agro-industrial projects, and logging, some of which is illegal. Little by little, the areas where spiders nest are disappearing, something the spider hunters know only too well.
Deforestation will have severe economic repercussions for the hunters and market vendors – as it will for countless other communities in Cambodia that depend on the forest for their livelihood. It will also bring to an end an important local tradition.
It may also take what could be a local solution to malnutrition off the table. Although Cambodia has greatly reduced its rates of poverty and hunger in recent years, malnutrition remains a problem throughout the country. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute’s 2014 Global Hunger Index, 40 percent of children under the age of five in Cambodia are chronically malnourished, resulting in stunting, and 50 percent suffer from anemia, due to a lack of access to sufficiently nutritious food.
In parts of Cambodia where the apin is found, tarantulas could help address some of these problems, according to a study by the University of Copenhagen in Denmark on the improved use of local food to address childhood malnutrition; tarantulas in particular have a high zinc content, which is essential for child growth. Yet with deforestation showing no signs of slowing, and with the tarantulas’ natural habitat diminishing, this opportunity to address malnutrition may be lost.
Story by Juliette Rousselot; Photography by Omar Havana.