Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Soulful tunes from the canopy

Soulful tunes from the canopy

Soulful tunes from the canopy

It is 5am and the first signs of light can be seen through the jungle canopy. The gibbons are awake. Uncurling long limbs from sleeping positions they start singing to the dawn before swinging soulfully through the trees. With intelligent eyes and thoughtful mannerisms they move in harmony with the forest. Until now there has not been an avenue to view these willowy primates. What has changed? Cambodia’s first gibbon eco-tourism venture has been established.

A ranger and research outpost in Veun Sai-Siem Pang Conservation Area, which adjoins Virachey National Park in Ratanakkiri province, will be base camp for adventurous travellers hoping to spot the humble creatures. The outpost was established in 2009 as part of a broader aim to document biodiversity values and engage local communities through development initiatives. By establishing eco-tourism projects, local residents are given jobs and incentives to protect their environment. As Tourism Minister Thong Khon has described eco-tourism, it combines “economy and ecology”.

Gibbon Spotting Cambodia
is a joint venture between tour companies DutchCo Trekking Cambodia, See Cambodia Differently and village residents represented by community-based eco-tourism management committees. These committees were set up by Conservation International. CI also provides funding to and works in partnership with the Cambodian Forestry Administration to protect this area. As well as an eco-tourism site and CI research hub, the outpost is a launching point for patrols to prevent crimes in the conservation area, like wildlife poaching or logging.

Some local ethnic communities are said to ascribe a sense of spiritual significance to gibbons. Masters of Science student, Julia Hill, studied cultural perceptions of primates in the conservation area and came across some interesting stories told by Kavet and Lao minorities. Her research detailed the Kavet people’s tale of a worldwide flood in which everyone was washed away and killed, before returning as gibbons. They see gibbons as ancestrally significant and believe these creatures cry rather than sing in the morning because they are sad about their past.

Lao people, however, believe these primates are capable of stopping the rain. Most interviewed by Hill said they would be sad to see gibbons disappear from their forest. It is possible that the spiritual beliefs of villagers surrounding the conservation area are linked to why hunting is considered a low threat to populations there.

Unlike many other areas of Southeast Asia, gibbons are not exploited here. “They are truly spirits of the forest; their mournful morning songs, the way they swing through the canopy almost noiselessly, disappearing as quickly as they appear,” is how Dr Ben Rawson, CI’s Veun Sai forests scape manager, describes gibbons on his poetic blog.

Rawson commented on a finding of Hill’s research that showed that if benefits from eco-tourism were realised ethnic communities would be less prone to hunt. “I think we are starting with a good basis for long-term conservation of the gibbons and other primate species at the site,” he said.

“We are hoping that the eco-tourism activities make a clear connection between conservation of natural resources and sustainable livelihoods. We want the livelihoods of local communities to improve while providing motivation for protection of the resource base that is so important for local communities.”

This eco-tourism initiative is designed to directly benefit five communities of ethnic Lao and Kavet people who live on the reserve’s southern borders.

Rawson explained that spending from a communal bank account is negotiated between village leaders and the community-based eco-tourism management teams. Activities which these funds are spent on must demonstrate a collective benefit and align with conservation goals like community patrols or no-interest loans for families in need.

Not only will this eco-tourism project raise money to improve the livelihoods of local villagers, it will also raise the profile of endangered primates.

In 2010 a new species of gibbon was discovered in Veun Sai-Seem Pang Conservation Area and was described as the northern yellow-cheeked crested gibbon. The 550km2 conservation site has the largest known population in the world with around 500 groups. Gibbon Spotting Cambodia’s first three-day trek offered a rare opportunity to meet these creatures. The discovery of this population highlights the ecological importance of the area, which hosts a number of other threatened primate species like the pygmy loris and douc langur in addition to clouded leopards and Sun bears.

Rawson hopes that by looking at the reserve’s relatively undisturbed population of gibbons, they could gain insight into other gibbon species living under higher threat in countries like China and Vietnam. He co-wrote the report The Conservation Status of Gibbons in Vietnam that was released this week and describes the situation to Cambodia’s east. “At best, remaining gibbon populations persist at significantly lower than natural densities, at worst, they have suffered local extinctions.”

This is attributed to habitat destruction, hunting for bush meat, poaching for the pet trade and use in traditional medicines. Two years ago the CI primatologist was doing survey work in Vietnam, where his blog warned that the forests were becoming quiet. “For me, it is an immensely sad moment when I sit, perched on a hill in the forest at 5am, waiting for the sun to come up and for the gibbon morning chorus to begin – and all I hear is silence.”

The future for Cambodia’s gibbon population is looking, at least for now, significantly brighter.

Back in Ratanakkiri, Rawson described the situation. “The major threats are potentially the existence of an exploratory mining concession which covers a large proportion of the site, although realised threats will depend on the location and extent of activities and conversion of the area for an Economic Land Concession.” He noted the recent decision by the Prime Minister Hun Sen to put a moratorium on ELCs.

Rik Hendriks, general manager of DutchCo Trekking Cambodia, based in Ban Lung Ratanakkiri, stressed the fragility of nature when combined with irresponsible practices. He described eco-tourism as a sustainable way of working with the environment for long-term gain, rather than the short-sightedness of resource exploitation.

To contact the reporter on this story: Gemima Harvey at [email protected]

MOST VIEWED

  • Cambodia armed with money laundering laws

    Money laundering will now carry a penalty of up to five years in prison while those convicted of financing terrorists will be jailed for up to 20 years, according to new laws promulgated by King Norodom Sihamoni and seen by The Post on Thursday. Comprising nine

  • Schools to be reopened in ‘three stages’

    With guidance from Prime Minister Hun Sen, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, is in the process of reopening schools in three stages. But no timeline has been set, ministry spokesperson Ros Soveacha said on Thursday. Soveacha said the first stage will be to

  • Thai border crossings eased

    The Cambodian Embassy in Thailand said in an announcement on Wednesday that Thailand’s government has allowed certain passengers from several countries to enter its borders. The visitors must go back to their country immediately after their duties in Thailand are fulfilled, the embassy said.

  • Gov’t says tourism recovers slightly despite pandemic

    The Ministry of Tourism and the Phnom Penh municipal administration have recognised 33 tourism businesses in the capital which have consistently implemented safety measures for tourists and adhered to the code of conduct issued by the ministry. Recently, the ministry announced that tourism businesses had to

  • Mull ASEAN border opening, PM urges

    Prime Minister Hun Sen has requested that ASEAN launch a scenario for gradually reopening cross-border travel and trade between countries in the region. He said ASEAN has had more success combating Covid-19 compared to other regions. The prime minister’s request was made at the

  • Ministry reports 11 new Covid-19 cases, reiterates vigilance

    Minister of Health Mam Bun Heng has urged people to continue practising virus prevention techniques after 11 people tested positive for Covid-19 within two days after arriving in the Kingdom. Speaking on Sunday, Bun Heng stressed the importance of washing hands, wearing masks or scarves when

  • Koh Rong land ‘belongs to firm’

    Preah Sihanouk Provincial Administration spokesperson Kheang Phearum told The Post on Sunday that the 35ha being bulldozed by Royal Group Co Ltd in Koh Rong belongs to it after it was leased to it for 99 years by the government in 2008. Phearum said the land does

  • Nine on Indonesia flight Covid-19 positive

    The Ministry of Health on Saturday confirmed nine more imported cases of Covid-19. The nine ‒ eight Cambodians and one Indonesian, aged 22 to 26 ‒ arrived in Cambodia on Thursday via a direct flight from Indonesia and are receiving treatment at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hostipal in Phnom Penh.

  • Kingdom’s financial sector healthy

    Cambodia's financial sector remains on a sustainable growth path despite the Covid-19 pandemic squeezing crucial industries, National Bank of Cambodia (NBC) governor Chea Chanto said. Tourism, garments and footwear have borne the brunt of the Covid-19 impact, he said, whereas the financial and agriculture sectors

  • Vietnam told to remove border tents

    Kandal provincial governor Kong Sophoan has ordered local authorities to prohibit the construction of buildings in areas bordering Cambodia and to report any irregularities immediately. Recently, Vietnamese officials removed another seven tents from the border area with Cambodia. His remarks were made on Wednesday afternoon