CAMBODIA's Cardamom Mountains now join the ranks of the Amazon, Madagascar, and the
Indonesian-Malaysian rain-forests as being one the world's most important bio-diversity
The scientific analysis of the field collections gathered during this year's biological
surveys of the Cardamoms have been completed and biologists are astounded by the
Frank Momberg, Program Manager for the UK-based Fauna and Flora International (FFI),
said: "On a biological basis, this area qualifies as being one of the crown
jewels of global natural history."
Momberg said because the Cardamoms are home to so many globally threatened species
and to species never recorded before by science it is crucial to protect this area.
"This bio-diversity cannot be replaced in other pieces of forest in Cambodia,
nor in other areas of Indochina," he said.
"This area is so special globally, as well as on a national scale, that it deserves
the highest possible conservation status."
Momberg said the results of the survey clearly show that the Cardamoms meet the biological
and ecological criteria to be designated a natural World Heritage Site.
Momberg said the Mount Samkos and Mount Aural Wildlife Sanctuaries, established in
1993 by a Royal Decree from King Norodom Sihanouk, should be accorded World Heritage
status by the Government as soon as possible.
And once plans are in place to protect and manage the central Cardamoms, this area
should be nominated as well, linking the two sanctuaries and creating a World Heritage
Site encompassing nearly a million hectares.
Stretching from the Mount Samkos massif on the Thai border to the Mount Aural massif
in south-central Cambodia, the densely forested slopes of the Cardamoms are the last
great wilderness area in mainland Southeast Asia.
FFI led the first extensive biological survey of the Cardamoms earlier this year,
in partnership with field teams from the Ministry of Environment and the Department
of Forestry's Wildlife Protection Office.
The Cardamom Mountains Bio-diversity Survey 2000 report, soon to be published, details
the findings of the research teams.
The report says the presence of endangered species such as tiger and Asian elephant
have been confirmed, and other rare species of large mammals including gaur, pileated
gibbon, leopard, Malay sun bear, and the smooth-coated otter also roam the Cardamom
But the news is not all good. Though the tigers are present, the threat to their
existence is very real.
"The data collected during this survey cannot be used to assess population trends,
but all local people interviewed believe that tiger numbers are falling as a result
of hunting pressures driven by the traditional medicine and fur trade," says
The Asian elephant seems to be fairing better, but there are concerns that their
habitat will be destroyed by logging.
"An estimated 300 elephants remain in the greater Cardamom area, making it comparable
to Sayabouri Province in Laos, which is the most important single site for the conservation
of the Asian elephant in Indochina," says the report.
Banteng, a species of wild cattle, are reported to be found in low densities in the
Samkos basin, and one of the survey teams found what is thought to be banteng dung,
but the report says the survival of this species of wild cattle in this area is still
"The only area in the Cardamom Mountains sufficient to meet the habitat needs
for long survival of this species is the Samkos Basin. This basin is perhaps the
most threatened area of the Cardamoms because settlement of refugees, road development
and unmonitored forest clearance is occurring.
"Local reports from this area suggest a large decline in banteng numbers over
the past two years and if the above causes are not addressed as a matter of priority
the species will be driven to local extinction in the immediate future," says
The report says the greatest immediate threat to the mammals of the Cardamoms comes
from hunting - both by local people and organized expeditions from Thailand - to
supply the demand for traditional medicine, trophies and furs. It is feared that
this hunting might have already caused the recent destruction of the Cardamom's Java
rhinoceros population - one of the rarest large mammals in the world.
But the primary danger to the integrity of the greater Cardamoms is the development
of roads, says the report. The upgrading and extension of the road through the Mount
Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary, is of particular concern as it will divide and significantly
reduce its value for the conservation of large mammals.
And there is other road construction that will soon cross the range and allow for
an influx of poachers and settlers.
"The two logging roads that are currently under construction in the Central
Cardamoms have the potential to destroy its size and remoteness - the two things
that make this area an internationally important site for large mammal conservation.
"Without these qualities, species that prefer the forest interior to the degraded
edges, such as rhino, gaur, and clouded leopard, will be subjected to further extinction
pressures," says the report.
Apart from "charismatic" creatures like bears, tigers, and elephants, the
survey found a spectacular array of nature's less cuddly, but equally important,
FFI's reptile specialists discovered 15 species never recorded before in Cambodia
and one snake that is thought to be new to science.
A total of 65 reptile species were recorded during the limited time of the survey
but this figure is sure to fall far short of the actual number inhabiting the Cardamoms,
says the report.
The discovery of an intact, viable population of Siamese crocodiles in the large
rivers and marshes of the Central Cardamoms was the reptile survey's most important
At best, only a handful of these crocodiles might survive in Thailand, Laos, and
Vietnam, so the existence of a relatively large population of them in the Cardamoms
is key for the species's survival in the wild.
Local people said they do not hunt these crocodiles as it brings bad luck. But the
use of explosives for fishing, possible commercial pressures, and the inclination
of new settlers to shoot the crocodiles for fun jeopardizes their survival.
The FFI report recommends that the Veal Veng marshes, along with the major rivers
of the Central Cardamoms, be conserved to protect the Siamese crocodiles, and other
threatened species such as freshwater turtles, and water monitor lizards. Fourteen
of the reptile species found by the team are considered globally at risk.
Momberg said King Sihanouk was particularly interested when he learned of the discovery
of the Siamese crocodiles. In 1955 the King visited the remote village nearest the
Veal Veng marshes, Ou Som, after villagers spent two weeks preparing an airstrip
for the King's plane.
Momberg said FFI will encourage the Government to nominate the Veal Veng marshes
as a "Wetland of International Importance" under the Convention on Wetlands
to which Cambodia is a signatory.
"Given the King's concern about the fate of these crocodiles, it is hoped he
gives his support for the nomination," said Momberg.
As might be expected, the survey's plant team found a great diversity of plant life
and the scientists suspect that among the many specimens collected there will be
species new to science.
The report says the biggest threat to plant life is logging - both legal and illegal
- as well as unregulated human settlement which will transform forest into crop land.
The survey also recorded 170 species of birds in the Mount Samkos sanctuary alone,
with another 43 species identified elsewhere in the Cardamoms. At least 16 of these
species had never before been recorded in Cambodia.
The report calls the Cardamoms an "avian diversity hot spot". Not only
does it have a spectacular collection of endemic species and subspecies, but it is
also an important area for migratory species enroute between Malaysia, China, and
Two of the endemic species in the Samkos area, the chestnut-headed partridge and
the white-tailed robin, show distinct differences from specimens found in Thailand
and elsewhere in Cambodia.
Forty amphibian species were found during the survey. Thirteen of these species were
new records for Cambodia, and at least 14 are still awaiting positive identification
and are possibly new to science.
The fish species discovered have more in common with the fish of peninsula Malaysia.
And because the waters of the Cardamoms differ chemically from the Mekong delta system,
fish species there are specially adapted and not found elsewhere in Cambodia.
The survey also studied the prevalence of snout moths in the Cardamoms - a good indicator
for the diversity and success of other insect life in Southeast Asian habitats.
Moths and other insects play a critical role in pollinating forest plants and as
a food source for birds, bats, reptiles, and spiders. Two hundred and ninety-two
species of snout moths were found, and again, many are new to science.
The diversity of theses moths in the Samkos sanctuary is at least as high as that
of the forests of western Malaysia - one of the world's major bio-diversity "hotspots".
The survey report concludes that the whole of the Cardamom range is "worthy
of a committed and sustained conservation effort".
Momberg told the Post that it is crucial that donor countries play a role in protecting
"Without financial and technical assistance, the Cambodian Government will not
be able to develop a protected area management system for the Cardamoms," he
"So the Ministry of Environment needs support from the international community
to build these two globally important sites - the Samkos and Aural wildlife sanctuaries.
"The international community needs to provide its support to urge the Cambodian
Government to take the central Cardamoms out of the [logging] concession system and
designate it a protected forest," said Momberg.
At the May, 2000 Consultative Group Meeting in Paris, the United Nations' Food and
Agriculture Organization also called for the central Cardamoms to be taken out of
Apart from their significance as a habitat for plants and wildlife, the Cardamoms
have a huge influence on people's livelihoods in much of southwest Cambodia.
"The watershed value of these forests alone by far economically outweighs the
value of short-term gains from logging," Momberg said.
The forests soak up rainwater and slowly release it back into the soil, helping to
prevent catastrophic flooding in the wet season and providing a water supply during
The streams and rivers flowing from the Cardamoms are part of an important coastal
and freshwater ecosystems that include Cambodia's most productive farms and fisheries.
Among the steps needed to protect the Cardamoms, FFI urges the Government to develop
a regional management and conservation plan as soon as possible.
For the Samkos and Aural sanctuaries, FFI recommends active management begin on the
ground and the army presence in these areas be reduced to the minimum needed for
FFI says a new conservation area must be established in the central Cardamoms and
no roads should be constructed across the range. Also, they say migration into the
region should be halted and more attractive settlement opportunities be established
outside the region.
"Basically the Cardamoms are a bank account that we don't know how to open yet.
If we open it now all the savings in that account will be lost," said Momberg.