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Grand wildlife vision for eco-tourism

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Cambodia's northeastern plains once thundered with the hooves of thousands of animals.

Vast herds roamed the region and rivaled those of the Serengeti in Africa. These

days the animals are long gone, hunted for food, medicines or trinkets in the domestic

and international wildlife trade.

This healthy lion cub is the only survivor of three born last week in CPP legislator Nhim Vanda's private zoo outside Kampot town. The other cubs drowned in heavy rain when their mother would not allow keepers to move them to dry ground, zoo officials were reported as saying.

But a project by the Department of Forestry and Wildlife (DFW) and the NGO World

Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Mondolkiri proposes to bring back the herds as the

basis for a unique eco-tourism endeavor in Southeast Asia.

A master plan, now underway, will set aside a mosaic of protected areas to restore

wildlife populations and introduce eco-tourism to the province. Indigenous communities

will be employed to patrol areas and develop sustainable tourist attractions.

Fishing lodges, birding trips and elephant rides are already being examined. In the

future, the plan notes that safari excursions and sport hunting may "compete

with the best of the Southern African [game parks]", as long as it is successful

at restoring larger mammals.

Kry Masphal, a DFW administrator involved in the project, said it not only protects

wildlife, but also benefits the country. He is optimistic it will aid conservation

by tapping into eco-tourism, the environmental side of one of the world's largest

industries.

The Ministry of Tourism (MoT) has signed up to the idea as part of its broader plan

to make Ratanakkiri and Stung Treng hubs for foreign visitors to Cambodia, said Tith

Chantha, deputy general director at the ministry. He said the MoT would consider

how an influx of tourists could disrupt indigenous communities.

"I don't think there will be much impact on minorities," he said. "I

will not let those minorities lose their identity. If they do, this is not a kind

of development, but a kind of destruction."

Mondolkiri has already seen much destruction of its wildlife. Three species-the kouprey,

rhinoceros, and hog deer-are almost certainly extinct in Cambodia. Tigers, Asian

elephants, wild deer and cattle such as gaur and banteng are edging closer. Although

much of the dry forest ecosystem is intact, wildlife populations remain at critically

low levels due to unchecked hunting over the last 40 years.

"Historical records from this part of Cambodia once described it as the Serengeti

of Asia," said WWF's Richard McLellan. "We can go to the same landscapes

now and see nothing without [using] camera traps."

McLellan said studies in the region, which encompass more than 600,000 hectares of

the Eastern Mondolkiri Protected Forest, Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary and others,

estimate that wildlife numbers could rebound within five to 15 years if given adequate

protection. But the project will concentrate initially on a 'core area' of just 27,000

hectares, possibly expanding that to 90,000 hectares within five years.

All hunting and intensive use activities in the core area will be banned. WWF claims

it is unlikely to interfere with local communities, as it is far from inhabited areas.

Sustainable use zones around the region will permit progressive degrees of use and

are projected to increase wildlife resources available to residents.

This model-what WWF calls "wildlife conservation by sustainable use"-is

adapted from conservation strategies in Africa that are credited with halting the

slide of many large animals toward extinction. By preserving landscapes and exploiting

wildlife to generate income, the ecosystems have survived.

However, there are precedents to avoid. In Kenya, the nomadic Masai people were displaced

by wildlife preserves catering to wealthy western hunters. A conference held last

year by the International Forum on Indigenous Tourism found that many Masai had been

forced to give up subsistence hunting and lost their homelands.

WWF stresses that the project is designed to protect wildlife by enriching those

living there, as well as the government and private sector. The NGO has sponsored

trips for government officials to visit parks in India and Africa to see the process

first hand.

"We recognize that eco-tourism is not a panacea," said Dale Withington,

country director for WWF. "It needs to be part of a wider economic development

strategy."

The proposed management areas will not initially generate income. The project will

cost at least $1.5 million for the first five years. Most of that will come from

the government and WWF.

But even then, the returns are uncertain. The area needs access routes, either by

river or air. Tourist facilities need to be built, and rangers and indigenous communities

trained. Most importantly, the animals have to return.

"There will be no economic return until biodiversity has time to recover,"

said McLellan. "It's one of the highest biodiversity areas in Cambodia. It was

higher in the past, and we think it has great potential."

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