In a wind-whipped ceremony held on a ridge overlooking Mondulkiri's provincial capital of Sen Monorom, top government officials met with wildlife experts and local villagers to celebrate one of Asia's unique environmental regions - Cambodia's Eastern Plains.
The December 12 event, attended by representatives of the 17 local ethnic minority groups as well as officials from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and the Ministry of Environment, was held to recognize the addition of 500,000 hectares of protected land to the ecologically diverse Eastern Plains.
Nearly 50 years ago the area was described by American biologist Charles H Wharton as "one of the great game lands of the world."
"Considering the number and distribution of big-game animals, one is led to believe that parts of northern and central Cambodia are second only to the African gamelands in game abundance," Wharton wrote after a historic expedition through the region in the 1950s.
WWF's International Programme Director Dr Chris Hails said that the expanses of dense forest interspersed with open, savannah-like plains were important to preserve.
"I certainly see why they make comparisons to parts of Africa," Hails said. "The only thing comparable in Asia are portions of plains of India."
Dubbed the Eastern Plains Dry Forests Protected Area Complex by the WWF, co-sponsor for the event, the territory extends into Vietnam and encompasses over one million hectares. Protected areas are internationally recognized and intended to boost the profile of conservation efforts, including sustainable tourism, by national government agencies.
"The big challenge is protect the area. If we lose a place like this, it's like burning down a library without reading all the books," Hails said. "We hope that today's event will mark the political will to pursue conservation."
Vast stretches of northern and eastern Cambodia are made up of "dry" forests that are home to a wide range of rare species of plants and animals. Despite the name, such forests receive ample precipitation during the rainy season, but are exceedingly arid for five months out of the year.
The extreme climate of the dry forests suits a unique-and increasingly rare-array of animal species including large water bird populations, big cats and wild cat-tle species. Thought to be at or near extinction, Cambodia's official mammal, the kouprey, is endemic to the dry forest.
Minister of Environment Mok Mareth said that with the inclusion of these two protected areas Mondulkiri now has more than one million hectares - equal to roughly 75 percent of province.
"The protection of this area and conservation of this wildlife could make those areas become second natural tourism target after Angkor Wat," said Mareth.