Seng Teak, country director of World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) Cambodia, has dedicated more than 25 years of his life to the protection of wildlife, natural resources and the environment, mostly in Cambodia.

A large part of his decades of service have revolved around the conservation of Mekong Irrawaddy dolphins (Orcaella brevirostris). One of the most highly endangered species on the planet, the freshwater dolphin remains on the brink of extinction.

Highly qualified for the crucial role he now plays in safeguarding the Kingdom’s biodiversity, Teak holds two Master’s Degrees: one a Master’s of Science in Engineering from the Kirovograd Institute of Agricultural Machinery Construction, Ukraine, USSR, in 1992, and the other a Master’s of Environment Management from Yale, one of the US’ most prestigious universities, in 2003. In 2014, he also earned a Diploma in Executive Development from the International Business Management School in Switzerland.

Reporter Van Socheata recently sat down with Seng Teak to learn more about the devoted conservationist himself, as well as his more than two decades protecting the unique natural resources of the Kingdom.

When did you first start engaging in natural resource protection in Cambodia?

I have spent more than 25 years on wildlife, natural resources and environment protection. I began following this path with the Ministry of Environment in 1993, just after the first general election, and coincidentally the year the environment ministry was established. In 1998, I was a part of the opening of the first WWF Office in Cambodia, with the position of country programme coordinator. In 2003, I was appointed as WWF country director after earning my environmental Master’s from Yale University.

I am proud to be the first Cambodian national to be selected to hold such a prominent position at this world-renowned international conservation organisation.

In 2012, nearly 10 years later, I was selected as regional director of the Western Pacific, under WWF-Australia. In this position, I was responsible for overseeing our projects in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. In mid-2013, I assumed the position of regional conservation director of WWF-Greater Mekong, overseeing Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. Since 2017, I have been country director of WWF Cambodia.

I returned to this country level position with the intention of using my abundant knowledge, skills and experience to serve my motherland, and participate in the protection of our natural heritage. We are accomplishing this by working in strategic partnership and cooperation with relevant state institutions, development partners and local communities.

What are some of your major achievements in the 25 years you have worked in wildlife and natural resources protection?

During this period, I have recorded many accomplishments. First of all, I am incredibly proud to have led WWF Cambodia from such a small organisation to its current leading position in the field. It is a strong, well-respected institution and is trusted and highly regarded by its partners – particularly with regard to the technical aspects of our work. We became a strategic partner with the Royal Government of Cambodia in 1998 in the cause of natural resources protection in the country.

The second major achievement that comes to mind now is my active participation in mobilising funds for WWF Cambodia’s operations. In 1998, we were allocated just $50,000 per year to conduct our work. Our funding has increased gradually each year since then, and reached $7.4 million this year.

I can say that on average, WWF Cambodia funding totals between $4 and $5 million per year. So, in the last 25 years, I have mobilised funds of around $150 million for implementing our projects in the country.

In addition, I have directly created jobs that generated income for many Cambodians. If I take the average, not less than 500 jobs have been created every year, including park rangers, wildlife rangers, jobs in natural protected forest and fisheries communities, as well as small enterprises. WWF Cambodia itself has a staff of more than 100.

My third achievement is the work I have done to contribute to the strengthening of local economies, through our projects to support community livelihoods in our target provinces, such as Kratie, Stung Treng, Preah Sihanouk, Kampot, Koh Kong and Mondulkiri. In these provinces, we have implemented many projects, including animal husbandry, vegetable, pepper and rubber growing at the familial level, the wildlife-friendly rice project, a cow bank, several small loan projects and some which support rattan and bamboo handicrafts.

We also promote forest bee keeping, clean energy and eco-tourism community development, as well as other sustainable projects.

One more vital achievement is that – though my experience, budgeting expertise and technical skills – I have contributed to the establishment of several wildlife and natural protection areas, along with key policies and strategic action plans to manage those areas. These include Irrawaddy dolphin conservation and protection zones, deer conservation zones, bird nesting and hatching conservation zones, Ramsar sites, natural protected areas, and wildlife corridors in the north-eastern part of the country.

All of the outstanding results that I have achieved in more than a quarter century stem from excellent cooperation with the relevant ministries and institutions, as well as our other partners.

I have also played a role in establishing and leading several major national forum and campaigns, such as International Freshwater Dolphin Day, Tiger Day, Elephant Day, International Day for Biological Diversity, World Environmental Health Day, World Wetlands Day, One Hour Earth Day and the recent Zero Snaring Campaigns, among others.

Something I am most proud of is how my active participation led to a 15 per cent increase in the number of Irrawaddy dolphins – from 80 individuals in 2015 to 92 in 2017. Other endangered species are also showing signs of recovery, including deer, river gulls, giant ibis, white-shouldered ibis, vulture, adjutant, gibbon, and the Siamese crocodile.

Could you share with us why WWF Cambodia pays particular attention to Irrawaddy dolphin conservation?

There are three major reasons for this. Firstly, the Irrawaddy dolphin is on the brink of extinction from the world, as defined by its inclusion on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The WWF has also set this species as high priority species for protection.

Secondly, a government sub-decree announced that the Irrawaddy dolphin is officially a living national treasure. I see the protection of this species as a matter of national pride.

Thirdly, Irrawaddy dolphins are attractive and intelligent. They are also an indicator animal; their presence at any part of the river reflects that the ecology system and the river itself is healthy, with an abundance of fish and other hydrology resources. In addition, conserving these dolphins will help create more jobs, boosting the national and local economies through eco-tourism.

What is the significance of the Irrawaddy dolphin to Cambodia, and are they present in any other countries?

These dolphins are incredibly important for Cambodia because they are almost extinct. It is a source of pride that the Kingdom provides the habitat for this rare and unique species. This animal is one of the reasons Cambodia is well-known to the rest of the world, in addition the other tangible and intangible cultural heritages of humanity that have been registered. On top of that, the conservation of rare species such as Irrawaddy dolphins creates jobs and increases incomes for local people through eco-tourism activities.

Currently, in ASEAN, only three countries are home to these unique freshwater dolphins – Cambodia, Myanmar and Indonesia. According to a census conducted in 2020, Cambodia was home to around 89 individuals, a small drop from the previous census. The Fisheries Administration – which operates under the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries – and WWF Cambodia will release the results of our 2023 dolphin census in the near future.

What challenges or obstacles are you facing in your dolphin protection efforts, and what are your plans for further dolphin conservation action?

The major challenges to the dolphin population are the use of illegal fishing equipment, such as gill nets and electro-fishing gear, in their protected areas. No matter how hard we work to combat this kind of activity, illegal fishing remains a major threat to our dolphin population.

WWF Cambodia will continue to support law enforcement authorities through increased training and funding for the provision of patrol equipment and the construction of posts at strategic locations for river guards.

Our projects will contribute to the promotion of the economies of local communities around the dolphin zones. We will also continue to monitor and research the dolphin population, as well as educating people about the importance of the species.

In addition, we are preparing a project which employs modern technology such as drones and echo location tools, in order to support law enforcement and conservation efforts.

What have you observed regarding the behaviour of the local population, in terms of dolphin conservation?

We do not have access to scientific date on behavioural change among the local people, or of their knowledge regarding the importance of engaging in dolphin protection. Through my own anecdotal observations, people in dolphin conservation zones are increasingly active when it comes to monitoring and reporting any illegal fishing activities in the protection zones.

They are often the first to report a new-born calf, or the death of a dolphin, as well as any movement or sightings outside of the protection zone. I believe their participation is extremely positive and reflects the fact that they are paying close attention to the protection and conservation of this rare species.

In your own estimation, what has the government done to protect the Kingdom’s Irrawaddy dolphin population?

The government has placed a high priority on dolphin conservation, as can be seen through the establishment of the dolphin management and protection zones, the creation of the Commission for Conservation and Development of Mekong River Dolphin Ecotourism Zone (Dolphin Commission), its Dolphin Conservation Strategy, and the fact that it has recruited and trained 72 dedicated river guards to protect the dolphins.

I offer nothing but praise for the efforts of the Royal Government of Cambodia, and thanks to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, national and sub-national fisheries administrations and the provincial authorities of Kratie and Stung Treng, as well as all of the dedicated river guards, for their close cooperation with WWF Cambodia to protect the Kingdom’s Irrawaddy dolphin population.

These animals are part of the Kingdom’s priceless natural heritage, and must be protected for future generations.