Known as Prey Long, this exceptional region in southern Kampong Thom province covers about 2,000 square kilometers, half of which have never been logged because poor road access has protected it from bulldozers, chainsaws and axes.
Dipterocarp trees still tower above a relatively high 25-meter canopy, some reaching 45 meters in height. These grand, living monuments have captured the attention of conservationists, foresters, governmental officials, and of course, loggers.
To assess the ultimate fate of Prey Long, recent botanical surveys by the University of Copenhagen and Cambodia’s Forestry Administration have gathered preliminary data on these vulnerable remnants of virgin rainforest.
In common with all first-growth rainforests, Prey Long is shady, cool and species-rich. Herds of elephants still roam the forest; calls of the rare pileated gibbon still resonate from the dense tree canopies; colorful vipers slither across wild pig trails in search of chorusing frogs; and hornbills still fly clumsily from one fruiting fig tree to another.
Perhaps most importantly, Prey Long conserves a relic of the country’s most valuable tree communities in a natural state, allowing a clear but possibly fleeting picture of mature lowland tree communities, diverse animal and fungal communities, and the ecological character of Indochina before the era of wholesale forest degradation.
The most recent visit to Prey Long in April resulted in the first detailed descriptions of a unique type of marsh forest in the low-lying tributaries of the Mekong River.
This aquatic forest supports an ecosystem that is extremely rare and apparently restricted to central Cambodia.
As botanical studies continue, it is becoming evident that this vegetation type conserves numerous rare plant species, many likely unknown to science.
The understory of this aquatic vegetation is particularly distinctive, with tree ferns and areca palms casting an especially dark shadow across the forest floor. Climbing ferns and flowering vines clamber up trees to compete for light with orchids and mosses.
Reports of rare crocodiles and otters add yet another dimension to the importance of these wetland sites, though there’s concern that the sightings have been made by hunters.
Bush meat collectors agree unanimously and enthusiastically that the unlogged forest and permanent water sources attract thirsty wildlife during the dry season. The hunters’ activities continue to threaten some of the region’s most vulnerable and endangered animals.
Rare species of frog and snake thrive in Prey Long.
While the discovery of a wet lowland rainforest is cause for celebration among conservationists, it is also a matter of great concern.
The virgin forests of Prey Long fall within the boundaries of two dormant logging concessions held by companies in Japan and China. Were it not for the wise annulment of Cambodia’s forest concessions by the Forestry Administration in 2001, there is no doubt that Prey Long would have already joined the ranks of former lowland forests in the history books.
The future of Prey Long’s first-growth forest is being assessed in terms of its monetary and historical values.
The Cambodian government must make important decisions about whether the country’s rare and quintessential forest types are worth more to its citizens as a short-term timber windfall or long-term site for the conservation of native germplasm and the study of Cambodia’s lowland ecosystems.
The Forestry Administration has already identified Kampong Thom Province as a critical source of seeds for 15 of Cambodia’s 20 most valuable species of tree, but the full scope of Prey Long’s natural riches has yet to be explored.
Certainly, all facets of its biological diversity – at the genetic, organismic and community levels – warrant protection.
An intact forest might also help to ensure a healthy water catchment for the Mekong and Tonle Sap and perhaps forestall rising sedimentation rates in Cambodia’s great lake.
There is no time to spare. A network of well-worn paths and ox-cart roads provides easy access to these rich forests and an organized timber company could clear them in two or three years. Saving these forests will require quick, decisive action by stakeholders inside and outside Cambodia.
The situation provides a golden opportunity for Western consumer nations, the Japan-based International Tropical Timber Organization, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank to make amends for laughable environmental mistakes in the past?
It could also serve as a worthy first-case model for a developed country or countries to acquire carbon credits by buying timber rights in the region.
Whatever the case, time is running out to save the last substantial lowland rainforest in Indochina from being ravaged by loggers.
Dr Andrew McDonald is an Assistant Professor at The University of Texas – Pan American. He has been studying rainforests in Southeast Asia for 15 years.