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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Cardamoms study gets some praise

Cardamoms study gets some praise

The Department of Forestry and Wildlife (DFW) has presented the results of its first

wildlife survey, which has won praise from some environmental NGOs and wildlife officials

for moving the country closer to independent conservation efforts.

The study signaled a break from the usual reliance on foreign scientists to provide

scientific expertise.

"Before we had help from [foreign] experts," said Dany Chheang, an official

at DFW and lead author of the Southern Cardamom Survey. "Now we can do it on

our own."

The primary recommendation of the biodiversity study, which was presented on November

12, was the creation of a protected forest on the 158,000 hectares of the study area

in the Cardamom Mountains. The zone was a former logging concession awarded to Vuthy

Pearnik and GAT, both of which had their licenses withdrawn earlier this year.

Suwanna Gauntlett is the head of WildAid, a US-based NGO that provided the funds

for the three-month long study. She said the document would add an important link

to the 110 million hectares of forest under protection in the Cardamoms. If other

concessions nearby were added, she said, the area "will be the largest mainland

protected forest in Southeast Asia".

WildAid has pledged $2 million on condition that the government agrees to a sub-decree

designating 158,000 hectares in the Southern Cardamoms as protected forest, and takes

"further positive steps" to protect the region. The money includes a three-year

commitment to manage the reserve and a promise to establish a trust fund.

Joe Heffernan, a project manager with NGO Fauna and Flora International (FFI), said

one obvious improvement was that since the conference, government officials had started

to refer to the 'Southern Cardamoms protected forest'.

"In six months a plan will be formulated," said Heffernan. "We'll

know exactly what we need to do, who we need to train and who's going to pay for

it. It's a massive, massive piece of land."

The Cardamom Mountains are a perennial focus for international efforts aimed at saving

the last tracts of wilderness in Southeast Asia. It is currently being managed by

a consortium of NGOs and government agencies. Teams from Conservation International

and WildAid handle law enforcement patrols, while FFI generally conducts scientific

surveys in cooperation with DFW staff.

The new study is similar to others undertaken by international conservation NGOs

since 1999. The authors said it confirmed the ecological abundance of the Cardamom

Mountains. It identified 56 species of mammals, 122 species of birds, 24 reptiles,

12 species of amphibians, 55 species of fish and 70 species of insects in the area.

The studies are an effort to incorporate the Southern Cardamoms into WildAid's proposed

"South West Elephant Corridor" extending north from Sre Ambel beyond the

Thai Border to include much of the mountain range.

It is hoped such a reserve will spark international eco-tourism, help preserve the

ecosystem, and benefit the small but desperately poor communities living there.

However Joe Walston of the Wildlife Conservation Society pointed out errors and inconsistencies

in the study, and felt the effort had more to do with justifying an agenda than with

rigorous science. He said it tended to exaggerate the degree of biodiversity found

in the Cardamoms, a fiercely debated topic.

"It's very, very close to worthless," Walston said. "As a technical

document, it is not of sufficient quality to say anything of the conservation importance

of the area. It's incredibly sloppy work."

In one section the study identified "56 species of mammals, and interviews with

local people revealed 50 potential additional species such as bats, rats and otters".

However, an appendix listing the mammals recorded during the survey named only 49

species - some identified through interviews alone.

And a chapter on biodiversity referred to the Southern Cardamoms as "the only

location on earth where the critically endangered Siamese crocodile can be found".

"That's just wrong," said Andy Maxwell of the World Wide Fund for Nature.

"The claims of the uniqueness of Siamese crocodile population are not borne

out by evidence", since the animals are found in Laos, as well as other places

in Cambodia.

However Maxwell did not condemn the survey, describing previous reports as being

"a little overstated". He said difficulties in carrying out studies - identifying

species and a lack of comprehensive data - had obscured the true status of biodiversity

in the region.

"The last thirty years have been a mix of Western and local determination,"

said Maxwell. "We don't have enough data to say one way or another."

FFI's Heffernan defended DFW's freshman effort, but acknowledged there remained room

for improvement.

"There are going to be mistakes their first time out, [but] it's still valid,"

Heffernan said. "I think that at the end of the day, it's not who has the best

project, but it's how much forest you can save."

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