The first Cambodian Wildlife Photo and Film Festival – an event celebrating the conservation of nature through the eyes of wildlife photographers, nature enthusiasts and conservation experts – is scheduled for July 18-26 at Fauna in Focus’ Nature Discovery Centre in Siem Reap.
The festival will be hosted by Fauna in Focus, an environmental NGO in Siem Reap, with the support of the Angkor Photo Festival and the Ministry of Environment. It aims to increase public awareness of Cambodia’s unique biodiversity and the importance of conserving nature.
Fauna in Focus is accepting submissions of photos and films related to wildlife and conservation efforts to be showcased at the event, which coincides with the organisation’s Earth Week 2020 celebrations.
Every year, 10,000 trees are planted at the centre by visitors and staff.
The organisation was founded by Daniel Roper-Jones who began his career in conservation in Madagascar and came to Cambodia in 2013.
Known as “Animal Man”, Roper-Jones teamed up with Chea Samban at the start of the environmental project, which was established in 2015.
Samban, who also works as a film host and wildlife instructor, recalled those early days at Fauna in Focus.
“Roper-Jones spent his time working with the company part-time. Besides performing his work, he built the organisation. He uses his money to buy materials and equipment.
“We have one old camera and use Vietnamese motorbikes to go to provinces to film. After that, the Sam Veasna Centre provided one room upstairs for us to work temporarily.
“In 2016, we had a bigger budget with the help of his friends and we decided to rent a place. At the very start, we only had Daniel and me,” Samban says.
Samban spent around 14 years working with conservation organisations such as the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity, the Save Elephant Foundation and the Banteay Srey Butterfly Centre.
One experience he’ll never forget is his encounter with Khmer Rouge soldiers in Samrong village in Battambang province’s Kors Kralor district.
“One day while working with the WCS to take animal samples, we were spotted by Khmer Rouge soldiers who shot at us because we asked them about wild animals. We needed to take blood, liver, pancreas samples to find out about diseases,” he says.
These experiences formed his decision to start Fauna in Focus with Roper-Jones as an environmental education and public awareness project for Cambodia.
“In Cambodia, the lack of nature enthusiasts and wildlife instructors has limited the ability to protect the forest and wildlife. Hence they are increasingly threatened.”
His conservation jobs provide him with primitive living experiences such as spending nights sleeping in the jungle, walking long distances and enduring sickness. Journeying on motorbikes with a GPS is considered a comfort.
But what concerns him most is coming face-to-face with hunters.
“When the GPS runs out of power you can get lost, but facing hunters is gambling with your life. I don’t know if I can survive or not. There are a lot of problems I face in the forest,” Samban says.
While in the jungle Samban and Roper-Jones decided to produce an educational film named Kingdom of Nature. It took them two years to film and it premiered in March 2017 in Siem Reap.
Since the very beginning, film production has been the core activity of Fauna in Focus as part of the campaign to change peoples’ attitudes so that they value natural resources, the environment and wildlife.
In September 2017 Fauna in Focus was listed as an NGO by the Ministry of Interior and received a letter of support from the Ministry of Environment. Last year, the organisation signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the National Council for Sustainable Development.
Fauna in Focus’ three main projects are nature discovery, environmental education and wildlife media.
Cambodian Nature, another Fauna in Focus film, reached 1.1 million views online and has brought the organisation attention and acclaim.
Samban, a film expert and enthusiast, claimed that it is the first high-quality nature film made in Cambodia with Khmer narration and English subtitles.
Regarded as one of the most-watched nature films in Cambodia, it was featured at special screenings, universities, schools and conservation NGOs.
It also made an appearance at the Cambodian International Film Festival in 2018, aired on local TV stations and screened in cinemas across the country.
“This film is already the most-watched nature film in Cambodia, but we have much bigger plans for our future. We hope to make many new films, shorts and educational videos,” Samban says.
To encourage people to protect the wildlife and environment, the organisation believes that people must know and understand them well. Only then will they start to appreciate, love and protect nature.
“We must build a new generation of conservation leaders in Cambodia by inspiring them to love nature. We do this through nature discovery, environmental education and wildlife media,” Samban says.
The Cambodian Wildlife Photo and Film Festival is a reflection of the organisation’s efforts to make this idea a reality.
Awards will be presented for best film, best photo and best story. A public outreach award will be given to the photo which receives the most likes and shares on Fauna in Focus’ Facebook.
“As planned, we will hold the one-week festival in mid-July as we already circulated the news on websites, posters and social media, Samban says.
“If the coronavirus situation in Cambodia restricts movement, we will consider postponing the event. We will not cancel it. The first Cambodian Wildlife Photo and Film Festival has to happen,” he says.
The festival is considered as one of the most important events yet for the organisation and is managed with limited staff, which Samban says is too small for larger-scale activities.
Luckily, the organisation has been able to make profits from film productions which partly secured their funding.
“We made profits by making films such as a sarus crane film for Birdlife International, an orchid film and a climate change film for the Ministry of Environment. All of these can help us pay for rent, staff, utility and internet in the short term,” Samban says.
He hopes that Cambodians and the rest of the world understand the importance of conservation work.
“Hopefully, we will have sponsors or donors support our future projects and turn our dreams into reality,” he says.
The organisation is walking a tight rope when it comes to balancing its activities and budget, Samban says that Fauna in Focus is still struggling to implement sub-projects while looking forward to growing the organisation to neighbouring countries.
“We have many sub-projects under our three main projects. We also want to create Fauna in Focus in other countries, such as Thailand, Laos and Vietnam,” he says.