A long time ago, indigenous animists living in the dense, isolated forests of northeastern Cambodia did not raise animals. When they were hungry, they just entered the forest nearby and hunted wild animals for food.
“There was a lot of wildlife,” Hoeur Sao, 50, says of her childhood near the Virachey National Park, in Ratanakkiri province. “When we walked to our crop fields, we used to see tigers, deer and crocodiles in front of us. But now, we rarely see them.”
Hoeur Sao, a member of the Kavet indigenous minority, visited Phnom Penh last week as part of a program run by the biodiversity preservation organisation POH KAO, which facilitates sustainable agriculture and livestock practices.
Twelve indigenous children and several elders from Ratanakkiri were brought to the capital to share their experiences of living in one of Cambodia’s most endangered natural areas, and to learn about the animals they rarely see with a visit to the Phnom Tamao Zoo.
POH KAO program manager Véronique Audibert-Pestel hopes the trip will have helped participants understand what the outside world looks like, and how the increase in population increases the demand for meat, so they will consider how their community’s biodiversity is at risk.
“Ethnic minorities believe in spirits, and they don’t just take whatever they want from the forest.
“They have limitations on what they take from their forest,” Audibert-Pestel says.
Hoeur Sao recalls that people in her area never raised animals in the past – they just hunted one animal and distributed the meat among the whole village.
But she doesn’t blame her people for the near-extinction of some species, because they have also helped to preserve the wildlife. Since the 1980s, they have been domesticating animals.
“Before, we just dug holes with sticks to grow our crops,” she says. “During the Khmer Rouge, they taught us how to plough our soil with buffalo. In the ’80s, people began to own buffalos. Now, 90 per cent of our villagers own animals.”
Their animals are not just for agricultural work but also food, decreasing the impact on local wildlife.
Hoeur Sao says the disappearance of a lot of wildlife in the jungle around her community can be blamed not on locals but on people from outside the community who have come to hunt in the area.
Audibert-Pestel says people from outside who hunt animals for trade are not so easy to control.
POH KAO has worked in Ratanakkiri since 2006 to co-operate with villagers in monitoring the forest so they can alert the protection organisation Wildlife Alliance to arrest hunters if they see them.
POH KAO has also supported locals raising livestock. Audibert-Pestel runs a veterinary practice in Ratanakkiri that can vaccinate the villagers’ animals so people won’t lose them and be forced to return to hunting.
“We have a vet to vaccinate their domestic animals, especially buffalo. Buffalo are so important for their livelihood. If they don’t have buffalo, they will hunt wild animals instead,” she says.
During their trip to Phnom Penh, Audibert-Pestel took the group to the Phnom Tamao Zoo to see animals rescued from poachers.
Following the zoo visit, the children’s artwork, personal reflections of their endangered environment, went on display last Tuesday at Meta House, where it can be viewed by the public until June 19.
At the exhibition’s opening, Keo Omaliss, an official of the Cambodian Forestry Administration, said he was preparing a proposal to declare the 60,000 hectares where POH KAO works as a national preservation area because it was rich in biodiversity.
“There is a lot of rare wildlife such as tigers, elephants and even giant ibis birds. The money from companies that take tourists there will benefit the community,” he said.
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