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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Wildlife bonanza in NE

Wildlife bonanza in NE

The presence of wild asian dogs, which prey on mammals, in Mondulkiri indicates significant animal populations.

A camera trapping survey in a remote corner of Mondulkiri province has confirmed

the existence of a variety of previously undocumented and extremely endangered wildlife,

according to the government and conservationists.

Of global importance is a picture taken of an elusive wild asian buffalo (Bubalus

bubalis), a species the existence of which from hoofprint sightings had been reported

by hunters for years but which nobody has actually seen first hand.

"I think the most important [find] is the wild water buffalo," said Sun

Hean of the RGC's Wildlife Protection Office (WPO). "[Existing] documents did

not recognize that Cambodia has this animal. This is a new confirmed species for

Cambodia."

The asian buffalo is considered "highly endangered" by conservationists

and was known only to exist in parts of India and along the Thai-Burmese border.

Photos have also been taken for the first time of wild elephants in their native

habitat, as well as pictures of a leopard, asian wild dogs, bantengs and a green

pea fowl.

The discovery of the asian buffalo means that the area in northeast Mondulkiri south

of the Srepok River just next to the Vietnamese border is now known to contain three

kinds of wild cattle, including bantengs and gaurs, with debate still open on whether

the kouprey is extinct or not.

"It's the best wild cattle place on the face of the earth," says Hunter

Weiler of the Cat Action Treasury which helped organize the expedition with WPO and

the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

Wildlife specialists note that the buffalo may have once been domesticated or of

a mixed breed, but that this doesn't detract from the find.

"It's very, very big, regardless of the fact that they could have interbred

with domestic cattle," says Joe Walston, WCS' Biodiversity and Forestry Specialist.

"This find puts Cambodia back on the map in terms of importance for wild cattle

populations."

An eight-person, all-Cambodian team of rangers and mammal specialists spent four

days on foot in May setting up eight camera traps near salt licks and other areas

where wildlife were known to frequent. The cameras are activated automatically by

sensing devices that detect movement. A month later the team went back in to retrieve

the film which was brought back to Phnom Penh on June 11.

ANOTHER FIRST: A wild elephant family group on the move in Mondulkiri.

Expatriates applaud the Cambodians for their initiative and professionalism."They

went in with all the surgical precision of a commando raid," says Weiler on

the success of the expedition. "The buffalo is the cherry..."

However, grave concerns are held over the survivability of the wildlife.

Sources say that because of the recent influx of Montagnard refugees from Vietnam

the government has introduced armed military units into the area to patrol the border.

It is believed that as many as 100 soldiers have been stationed at Mereuch on the

Srepok River just north of the area where the photos were taken.

These units pose "potentially the most serious threat" to the wildlife,

according to Walston. "They are allowed or [even] encouraged to hunt,"

he says, noting that underpaid "armed and mobile" soldiers patrolling in

remote jungle areas would have little choice but to hunt for food.

Men So Riyun, one of the team members provided by WCS said that while illegal poaching

appears to have declined in the last two years "the situation has changed"

because of the Montagnards.

WPO's Sun Hean is well aware of the immediate threat to the wildlife and says that

his department is in the process of seeking Council of Ministers support to request

RCAF to instruct soldiers not to hunt. Sources say the military has already expressed

its willingness to help, but in the wild scrub forests near Phnom Yang Ke it may

be difficult to control hungry militia who are two days walk from the nearest village.

Longer term, the government has a plan to turn a huge swath of mostly uninhabited

jungle, including the buffalo's estimated habitat and that of possibly 50 wild elephants,

into a "protected forest". The area, comprising 471,175 hectares, runs

from the Srepok River in the north, along the border with Vietnam southwards, encompassing

a block roughly 40 km wide by 100 km long . The plan entails cancelling two logging

concessions, although full government approval has yet to be received.

>

Where buffaloes roam: The first photo of Cambodia's endangered wild asian buffalo.

This week the WPO asked the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) for

$827,000 for a two-year project to strengthen wildlife management and conservation

systems in the area, and develop increased co-operation between Cambodia and Vietnam

to protect wildlife.

In the meantime, according to Hean, one of the next steps is to get back in the bush,

collect some buffalo dung and run it through a DNA analysis to see just how wild

the discovery really is.

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