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Fallout from deforestation

In a 2010 report to the international Convention on Biological Diversity, Cambodia’s Ministry of the Environment presented a portrait of national biodiversity to make any taxonomist drool: 123 mammal species, 88 reptile species, 545 bird species, and more than 2,000 species of vascular plants. Further study has the potential to significantly increase these numbers. 

But as the impressive extent of Cambodian biodiversity slowly comes to light, it is also coming under increasing threat.    

Over the past decade, land concessions and luxury timber harvesting have reduced primary forest cover by 13,000 hectares, or 3.42 percent each year in Cambodia, according to a report released early this month by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation and the International Tropical Timber Organisation.  

The same report ranks the Kingdom third in the world for primary forest loss.  

Wildlife experts say many of Cambodia’s most iconic species have seen their habitats dwindle under an onslaught of new roads, mines, rubber plantations, and hydroelectric dams.   

Some, like Cambodia’s national animal the Kouprey, may have already succumbed.  According to a 2008 designation by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the elusive forest ox is critically endangered and likely extinct, with no confirmed sightings for nearly three decades.  

Other species may still have a fighting chance. The Post profiles three such species – the Asian elephant, the Siamese crocodile, and the Malayan sun bear – emblematic of the threats posed by deforestation and the lingering potential for redress.   

As Cambodia attempts to strike a delicate equilibrium between economic development and ecological stability, the fate of these three species may hang in the balance.

Asian elephant

The Asian elephant is a naturally gluttonous species, requiring up to 200 kilogrammes of food and 200 litres of water per day. 

As deforestation fragments their habitat into smaller and smaller tracts of forest, elephants are increasingly hard-pressed to meet these basic biological needs, said Tuy Sereivathan, Project Manager of the Cambodian Elephant Conservation Group.  

“Deforestation is the main problem for the elephants’ habitat,” said Tuy Sereivathana, adding that developments associated with new roads, mines and dams created boundaries which the elephants cannot cross, effectively restricting their range and the availability of resources.  

Selective logging of luxury timber has also taken its toll, creating noise which augments elephant stress levels.  

Stressed elephants reproduce less and are often driven out of the forest by the disturbances, said Tuy Sereivathana.  

This trend has led to an increase in human-elephant conflict, with elephants devouring crops and trampling houses as they foray outside the bounds of their dwindling forest habitats.  

The elephant expert explained that villagers have killed elephants to avenge lost property in the past.  

CECG works to reduce this conflict, educating villagers about elephant conservation and providing them with an array of techniques to keep the pachyderms in the forest and away from their crops.

Deterrents include fireworks, chilli powder and scarecrows. Farmers are also advised to plant fast-growing crops such as cucumber.

Current estimates place the number of wild elephants left in Cambodia at around 500 to 600, with the majority clustered in the Cardamom Mountains, northeast Mondulkiri province, and Virachey National Park in Ratanakkiri province.

Though CECG surveys of elephant footprints and dung samples indicate that their population is increasing slowly, Tuy Sereivathana warned that the continuation of widespread habitat destruction may see this trend reversed.  

Asian elephants play an important role in native ecosystems by maintaining forest trails, dispersing seeds, and creating the watering holes which sustain many other forest-dwellers. “If elephants were extirpated,” said Tuy Sereivathana, “the ecosystem would become unbalanced.”

Despite the ongoing degradation of Cambodia’s forests, Tuy Sereivathana remains optimistic. There are ways to promote economic development and conservation simultaneously,” he explained. For example, he said,  a land concession could be granted with an area preseved for use as an elephant corridor. “It is not too late [for Cambodia’s elephants], if we take action now,” said Tuy Sereivathana.

Siamese crocodile

There are an estimated 250 wild Siamese crocodiles left on the planet.  Most of the crocodiles live and breed in a handful of marshlands and waterways within Cambodia’s remote Cardamom mountain range. Logging associated with recent hydro-dam concessions has proved a great threat to remaining populations, said Adam Starr, Project Manager for the Cambodian Crocodile Conservation Project.

The construction this year of the Stung Atay hydropower dam, near O’Som village in Pursat province, has caused particular problems for the crocodiles. The project required an area set to contain a reservoir to be cleared of forest cover. It has led to a gold rush of illegal logging according to Starr.  

The problem arose when workers brought in to log the proposed reservoir site were not informed of the site’s boundaries. Paid by the cubic meter of forest cleared, the workers are incentivised to log far beyond the bounds of the reservoir, leading to a surfeit of deforestation unnecessary to the proposed dam, he said.

In 2009, Starr and his team found several individuals posing as dam construction workers logging illegally less than 100 meters from CCCP’s Ta Jareuk Crocodile Sanctuary. The general director of the Forestry Administration, Chheng Kim Son, was unavailable to comment yesterday.

Top soil run off associated with the deforestation has had drastic effects on the water quality of nearby rivers, increasing nitrogen content and leading to higher levels of turbidity.  “When we toured the site in November the actual water was black … from ash and soot run off,” Starr said.  

An April rescue mission succeeded in relocating only one of the estimated 15 crocodiles living approximately 150 metres downstream from the dam.  

A feasibility study for a similar project is currently being conducted for the nearby Araeng River. “If the feasibility study goes ahead, the Araeng valley could face being entirely logged and within the valley we have likely the second-largest Siamese crocodile colony left in the world,” said Starr.

The crocodiles burrow channels between the regions’ waterways, supporting the spread of biodiversity and the maintenance of genetic diversity among various forms of aquatic life. It is also believed that the crocodiles help maintain higher fish populations by consuming carnivorous fish.

Sun bear

In 2008, the International Union for Conservation of Nature designated Malayan sun bear as vulnerable to extinction for the first time.

The Union’s published justification reasoned that “given the Sun Bear’s dependence on forest, it is clear that the large-scale deforestation that has occurred throughout Southeast Asia over the past three decades has dramatically reduced suitable habitat for this species”. It estimated a population decline of 30 percent over a period of 30 years.  

Accurate numerical estimates of the sun bear population in Cambodia are lacking, although populations are known to exist in the Cardamom Mountains and Ratanakkiri province.  

Free the Bears, an NGO with offices in Phnom Penh, is working to fill this data gap, conducting surveys to estimate bear numbers based on dung, scratch marks, and the presence of dens.

Nev Broadis, Free the Bears’ regional director, said that: “If there’s human impact, presence of cattle grazing, or villagers using the forest, we are finding reduced bear signs.”  

Male sun bears require a large home range, said Broadis, and deforestation is shrinking available space. This brings the bears into closer contact with each other, creating conflict among the normally solitary and territorial animals.  

Deforestation is also exacerbating conflict with humans, Broadis continued, citing a recent incident in which a Battambang villager was mauled by a bear while clearing forest for farm land.

“People have more conflict with bears than perhaps is advertised,” said Broadis.  

Free the Bears works to promote awareness, lending monetary support to the Kouprey Express, a mobile education unit run by fellow conservation NGO Wildlife Alliance.  

The Express teaches children about wildlife and habitat loss in an attempt to instill values of sustainability and ecological stewardship in Cambodia’s youngest generation.

The hope is that efforts such as these will shape the country’s priorities in future, as it continues its economic development.  

“You can’t stand in the way of development, but you can help to direct it and make sure it’s done in a sustainable manner,” said Broadis.  

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