The Royal Government created the country's fourth protected forest in Ratanakkiri province in January this year.
Comprising around 100,000 hectares, the O'Yadav Protected Forest is mostly uninhabited, although dozens of species of wild animals, some endangered, live in the region. Set aside by a Council of Ministers vote in February, it is slated to become the Kingdom's first game hunting reserve. Editor-in-Chief Michael Hayes, accompanied by staff from the Kingdom's Wildlife Protection Office, visited the area recently.
Preparing to leave WPO Base Camp are (from left, front) Puoy Yong, Oyadav Police Department, Son Ngon, policeman, Dam Hap, WPO ranger; (back) Hunter Weiler, WPO technical adviser, Touch Phalla, WPO field biologist. The sign above reads "Wildlife Protection Office, Ya Tung Commune, O'Yadav District, Ratanakkiri Province".
GAME HUNTER JUMPS THE GUN
AN official at the Spain-based company NSOK Safaris claims he has secured exclusive rights to establish a hunting program in the new O'Yadav Protected Forest.
However, officials at Cambodia's Wildlife Protection Office say the statements by Felix Barrado, NSOK's director, are not true.
The NSOK statements were carried in the February 2009 edition of a publication called The Hunting Report: Newsletter Serving the Hunter who Travels.
"[Felix] Barrado has exclusive access to an area covering 110,000 hectares in eastern Cambodia near the border with Vietnam. The area is virgin wilderness with a few villages along the outskirts. Barrado intends to put in a handful of roads for access and is building a camp there over the coming spring/summer. The planned camp is said to be a high-end affair. He is also hiring and training indigenous people as camp staff and trackers," said the newsletter.
WPO's director Chheang Dany told the Post that while NSOK had submitted an investment proposal for the development of game hunting in O'Yadav almost three years ago, it was still at the Council for the Development of Cambodia and had not been acted on yet.
How this will affect NSOK's ability to get approval for the project remains unclear.
"NSOK made a huge mistake by announcing all those things in advance of consulting with us and getting final decisions from the Cambodian government," said one WPO source, who requested anonymity.
A visit to this remote corner of Cambodia is not for the faint-hearted. For starters, in the dry season there is almost no water, which is why there are so few human settlements.
Simply put, in most of the new protected forest there is no way for humans to survive without a regular stream of supplies - and this is why wild animals have continued to exist in substantial numbers.
By the end of January, most of the small streams have dried up, leaving an area roughly 25 by 40 kilometres that is harsh, almost waterless and easy to get lost in.
Because O'Yadav is outside local phone coverage, if you have an accident it could take several days to get help. With a bit of bad luck, it's not hard to envision a situation developing that could easily prove fatal.
In fact, during the three days and two nights I spent in O'Yadav riding on the back of a motorcycle (see map below) driven by my police escort, I found myself wondering all too often what would happen if the moto flipped and one of us broke a leg.
We could have found ourselves 25 kilometres from what: a poverty-stricken village with no doctor!
We - the six of us, including two policemen and a ranger as moto drivers; Touch Phalla, field biologist with the Wildlife Protection Office (WPO); and Hunter Weiler, WPO technical adviser - covered about 80 kilometres in total after reaching the village of Dar from Ratanakkiri's capital Banlung.
From there we had to leave our 4x4 and switch to 90cc motorcycles for the rest of the trip that eventually brought us to the town of Kao Mayeul on the Srepok River, from where we took a small boat downstream to Lumphat.
The two largest villages - Dar and K'Veng - are located on the O'Tang River, as it has water flowing all year round. The river originates in Vietnam's Central Highlands, where it is called the Ia Drang, the site of the Vietnam War-era battle in November 1965 that was given much visibility in the Hollywood film with Mel Gibson, We Were Soldiers.
The blood from those battles has long since been washed away, and the aqua-green waters of the O'Tang flow serenely southwest towards the Srepok, a much larger river about 500 metres wide, which eventually merges with the mighty Mekong 180 kilometres downstream at Stung Treng.
Poaching and logging
Each village has about 150 to 200 residents who eke out a bare-bones existence with limited rice farming buttressed by wildlife hunting and poaching, the sale of illegal timber and anything else they can scratch out from the jungle.
Houses are simple affairs, only a few made from solid wood, and many draped with the world-famous UN blue-colored tarps for siding with straw roofs.
It's clear that these villages, inhabited by members of the Jarai ethnic minority, are some of the poorest in all of Cambodia.
Once we crossed the O'Tang River at K'Veng, where our drivers had to carry the motos across the stream to keep the engines dry, the terrain all the way to the Vietnam border and south to the O'Leo River is devoid of human habitation.
Wildlife protection office Field Biologist Touch Phalla said poachers were killing gaur and banteng on a regular basis.
This is where most of the wildlife, especially the rare gaur and banteng, are believed to live, roaming 10 to 15 kilometres a day in search of vegetation and isolated pockets of water needed to survive.
WARNING TO TRAVELLERS
For those off-road adventurers who might be considering heading to the OÝadav Protected Forest on trail bikes, be advised that to do so without a guide would be extremely risky. Trails are not marked, water is scarce, mobile phones are generally out of range and any situation that would result, in the need for immediate medical attention would be impossible to respond to effectively. As well, there is no regular ferry traffic on the Srepok River. Our boat trip from Kao Mayeul to Lumphat was arranged in advance. The fee for two persons was $75 which was consistent with what other people have had to pay.
In 2005 the WPO built a small camp about 10 kilometres from the O'Tang, which we reached in 90 minutes on a jungle track that, if it weren't known from previous experience, would be extremely hard to follow as the grass was often waist-high.
The landscape is generally flat and sparsely covered. At times one can see around 200 to 300 metres through the scattered deciduous trees that lose their leaves in the dry season, but the land is regularly broken up by the dry gullies of stream beds, that are more heavily covered with dense bamboo thickets that are difficult to pass through. In the rainy season, all these gullies would be filled with flowing water, making the WPO camp practically impossible to reach by motorcycle for six months every year.
From Banlung to the WPO Base Camp took us about eight hours and with little sunlight left, we quickly set up our mosquito nets and got a fire going so we could have a meal before it got dark. Fortunately, there was a small standing pool of water nearby, so after a hasty dunk the pleasure of dust-free skin could be savoured for a few minutes before lathering up again with mosquito repellent.
In the morning we headed off south towards the O'Leo River, which has on its banks one of the most isolated police posts in the Kingdom. A half-hour from Base Camp, we found ourselves on what was once literally a road, although it was easy to see that it had not been used by trucks for years.
While this region was no doubt once part of the fluid network of trails that made up the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the '60s and '70s, our escorts explained that the truck tracks were of a more recent origin, stemming from the '80s when Vietnamese and Cambodian loggers were busy taking out most of the 1-metre-in-diameter hardwood trees that used to be prevalent but are now long gone. We stopped at a number of dry or nearly dry water holes, and there was ample evidence of wildlife, including wild boar, deer and wild cattle tracks-but we never saw any animals ourselves, except once when a wild boar raced across our path scurrying for cover.
Rare birds were more easily seen, and WPO's technical adviser Hunter Weiler explained that I should feel extremely lucky, as avid bird-watchers would pay hundreds of dollars to see the two endangered Sarus Cranes or the wild peacock that we encountered along the way.
An illegal logger passes through Dar village on his way to Route 78. We saw seven such motorcycles with wood in one day.
WPO technical adviser Hunter Weiler points to wild cattle tracks at one nearly dry water hole.
Spicing up camp cuisine with some fresh grilled frog.
Villagers in Kok Phnong village were wary but curious of outsiders.
Policing the wilderness
The O'Leo police station was a rather sorry affair. One lone cop was on duty with a few scruffy chickens, two dogs and a pig to keep him company. A tattered Cambodian flag hung limply on a pole bearing witness to this end-of-the-road outpost of government control set up to keep an eye out for refugees who might try to cross the border.
The station's flimsy walls and tin roof gave cover to a bamboo sleeping mat and a dusty VCR. There wasn't a filing cabinet or desk in sight.
This was clearly a posting for someone with a dislike of paperwork.
The cop said there were normally three policemen at the post but that his colleagues had been sent to Preah Vihear to help shore up the defences there. He said some fishermen had come by the previous week and that he saw two banteng back in November. Threat levels in this corner of the Kingdom were for the time being sub-zero.
The trip down and back to the O'Leo took us just over six hours, which included a side trip on foot to a salt lick to see if we could chance upon any unsuspecting feral critters. We startled a wild chicken but that was it. However, a large leg bone gave witness to the elusive gaur.
The following day we headed back towards the O'Tang River early, as we weren't sure how long it would take to reach the town of Kao Mayeul on the Srepok River. We had to be there by 2pm to catch a pre-arranged boat for the three-hour trip downstream to Lumphat. The key was to be off the river before sunset to avoid the problem of navigating the numerous rapids in the dark.
The trip went smoothly except for one human hiccup that underscored the dilemma for the people living in the region.
While the drivers lugged the motos across the O'Tang River, I decided to poke around the village of K'Veng. People were friendly enough.
They said they managed to grow some rice but that life was hard.
While we were chatting a woman came running out of a house with a baby that was screaming and convulsing with spasms.
I was told there was no doctor in the village, not even a traditional healer. A man brought out some Tiger balm and with a spoon started scraping the baby's body while rubbing in the balm. He did this for about 10 minutes and finally the child stopped convulsing. However, with its skin covered in red welts it was unclear if the baby was just numb with pain and in a stupor or whether the remedy actually worked.
But the event underscored how difficult life is for the villagers in the area and the fine line they walk between life and death. In this regard, catching and eating endangered species is a no-brainer. They do it to survive.
WPO estimates that there may be up to 80 gaur and 300 banteng in the protected forest. Other species present include the Eld's deer, sambar, leopards, sun bears, crab-eating mongooses, Asiatic jackals, East Asian porcupines and pig-tailed macaques. Turtle, snake and bird species have been identified in multiple dozens.
The key to their continued survival has obviously been their ability to avoid humans, a skill the animals demonstrated clearly during our visit.
But the wildlife can be tracked down. The only Muntjac deer we saw were two dead ones on the back of a motorcycle headed for Ya Tung.
WPO's field biologist Touch Phalla said poachers were killing gaur and banteng on a regular basis.
Plans to turn Oyadav into a managed game hunting preserve may or may not help preserve the wildlife. Only time will tell. But what is clear is that doing nothing means that over time the animals will be slowly hunted to extinction.