On the trail with Cambodia's tarantula hunters

On the trail with Cambodia's tarantula hunters

PHNOM PENH, June 23 (Reuters) - The shiny, hairy creatures might make some people run a mile but in the humid jungle of Kampong Thom province, north of Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh, tarantula hunting is all in a day's work.

Cambodians have long hunted spiders for food and medicine but it wasn't until severe food shortages during the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in the mid-1970s that people turned to spiders as a staple.

Nowadays, spiders are a source of income for many farmers in Cambodia, one of the world's poorest countries. But some fear that they will be hunted into extinction or will decline rapidly in number because of deforestation.

In Krasaing village, hunters set off for their trip armed with hoes to dig for tarantulas, or "aping" in Khmer.

Farmer Khim Khoy and his wife Em Nak, both 22, were part of the pack. June is a particularly fruitful time for hunting, they said, because of the rainy season.

"I've never been bitten by a tarantula," said Khim Khoy as he reached into a hole and slowly pulled out a tarantula with his bare hands, adding that each tarantula is sold for $0.12.

"On a good day, I can make $12.50," he said.

The market town of Skuon, 70 km (43 miles) north of Phnom Penh, is home to Cambodia's biggest spider market and business is booming.

"Tarantulas are more delicious than crickets," said customer Om Kumpheak, 27, as he bit into a deep-fried spider. "I have to pass through here to buy tarantulas, because they're rare in Phnom Penh." (Reporting by Lach Chantha, Prak Chan Thul and Pring Samrang; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Nick Macfie)