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The Cardamoms

The Cardamoms

The race is on to save one of mainland Southeast Asia's last great wilderness areas before it falls victim to loggers' saws and unchecked development. Stephen O'Connell visited and photographed the environmental 'front line' in the Cardamom Mountains.

The race is on to save one of mainland Southeast Asia's last great wilderness areas

before it falls victim to loggers' saws and unchecked development. Stephen O'Connell

visited and photographed the environmental 'front line' in the Cardamom Mountains.

The Cardamoms and adjoining forest areas comprise some 1,500,000 hectares of wilderness

- one of the most varied and extensive natural regions in Southeast Asia.

Stretching from Cambodia's coast and across the mountains, the dense forest is home

to some of the most endangered species of large mammals and amphibians in the world.

Leading the effort to secure protection of this precious tract of natural heritage

is UK-based NGO Fauna and Flora International (FFI) in partnership with the Wildlife

Protection Office under the Ministry of Agriculture's Department of Forestry and


The program manager for FFI's Indochina office, Frank Momberg, said apart from a

small ornithological expedition to the Cardamoms in 1944, there has not been a zoological

survey of the range until now.

"We know from reports of hunters that there is very exciting and rare animals

in this area such as tiger, gaur, banteng and khting vor - an animal nobody has ever

had on film or photographs," said Momberg.

FFI now has a team in the Cardamoms taking advantage of the dry season to confirm

exactly what species are in the region.

"There is only a short window of time between January and April, which is the

dry season. Otherwise even the best four-wheel-drives can't make it into this area,"

said Momberg.

The legacy of past conflicts still hangs over the research work.

"It is very important to quickly get biological data because there are lots

of changes in this area. The former Khmer Rouge are settling down. They are building

villages [inside the Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary]. They are trying to reintegrate

into society, which is a very important issue, but on the other hand, there is an

important wildlife habitat here," he said.

To reach the wildlife FFI first had to establish a base camp close to the mountains.

It chose a site near the remote village of Pramouy in Pursat Province's Veal Veng


The base camp is a bone-rattling eight-hour drive from Pursat. Stretches of the road

leading to Pramouy, a village being settled by former KR soldiers and their families,

are heavily mined on each side. Remnants of a dozen military vehicles lie twisted

in the grass along the road.

To help make sense of the world, the villagers of Ou Som turn to the spirits of their ancestors, as they have for ages past, to seek solace and advice. Stephen O'Connell, the first foreign reporter to travel through this region in 30 years, arrived in Ou Som on the eve of their annual ancestor-worship festival, a day-long event of dancing, offerings and communing with the spirits

"It is very difficult to do fieldwork here. We are basically sitting on an ex-battlefield,"

said Momberg at base camp.

"We have to very carefully design our biological survey because there are some

remaining minefields in this area. The local people, meaning ex-KR, know where the

mines are because they placed them. So we have to trust these people. The rule is

that nobody goes alone into the forest and they must follow the local guides very

strictly," said Momberg.

The biologists do not have to go far from camp to find signs of the creatures hidden

in the forest. Just a five-minute walk down the road, Barney Long, FFI Indochina's

large mammal specialist, found fresh tracks in the mud belonging to a leopard cat

and a fishing cat - a small nocturnal predator that hunts frogs and fish and is globally


A few nights earlier, Long had had an encounter with a much larger, more dangerous

cat, about a kilometer from the camp.

"On our first night out, Jenny [Daltry] and I were down by a stream. Jenny was

looking for frogs and snakes. I was just starting to go for a little walk and turned

around and there were these two very large orange eyes staring at me. So after a

bit of investigation, I decided it was a tiger.

"Even though it had run away, I myself decided to run away and come back to

camp. Obviously safety comes first ... even though we do want to see more species,

we've got to be sensible about it. Yeah, [the tigers] are definitely here,"

said Long, perhaps grateful not to have been dined on by the subject of his research.

Long said although the researchers were only a few days into their survey, the results

so far had been "amazing."

Assisting in the survey was Jennifer Daltry, a conservationist with FFI and a reptile

and amphibian specialist, who has spent many years researching these creatures in

Southeast Asia.

"The Cardamom Mountains are the largest and most untouched area that I have

ever been asked to survey," said Daltry.

"We know nothing of the reptiles and amphibians that live here. I am hoping

that we will find some species new to science. I am also hoping that we will find

some globally threatened species.

"We may find the Siamese crocodile, which is critically endangered, actually

thought to be extinct in the wild, but recent reports suggest that there are actually

some crocodiles here in the Cardamoms. So it would be very, very important to find

them, see what there status is, and argue for the conservation of this area,"

Daltry said.

The greatest immediate threat to the Cardamoms comes from loggers - four concessionaires

are planning to operate in the range.

The environmental monitoring group Global Witness (GW) said to the best of its knowledge

none of the concessionaires had begun removing logs from the western and central

parts of the range, but it expected cutting to start this year.

One of the Cardamom concessionaires, Superwood IPEP Ltd, has however already cut

trees illegally in the Aural Wildlife Sanctuary at the eastern edge of the mountains,

GW director Patrick Alley said in an e-mail reply to questions from the Post.

Although Koh Kong-based company You Ry Sako's concession is outside the proposed

protected area, the company has a long history of illegal logging and exporting,

and GW believes there is a significant danger it will use its new access road for

more illegal purposes.

The company's road - better than most connecting major provincial centers around

Cambodia - runs through the jungle from Koh Kong to its site north of the range.

Conservationists are desperate to get the central area of the range under protection

as it provides a corridor for wildlife movement between the Samkos and Aural sanctuaries.

FFI's Momberg said although the conservationists were moving fast, the loggers were

moving faster. With the power the logging companies have, it will be difficult to

get the central Cardamoms taken out of concession.

Cambodia's Department of Forestry and Wildlife has the power to award and withdraw

logging concessions. However, director-general Ty Sokhun, while acknowledging the

importance of protecting certain areas of the Cardamoms to maintain the watershed,

doubted there were any animals to be saved.

"Recently we have information about biodiversity, but we feel they are 'short

stories.' We have heard stories of one mountain where only snakes live. We have heard

about elephants that go to die in one place. And there are stories about pygmies

no more than 1.2 meters tall," said Sokhun, adding that his staff reported seeing

the little people.

If the FFI survey could bring back proof of the existence of endangered animals in

the Cardamoms, then his department would begin negotiations with the concessionaires

to limit their logging. But he felt it would not be necessary to establish a protected

wildlife corridor between the Samkos and Aural sanctuaries.

"I don't think there should be a corridor for this area. We don't know exactly

what is in this area. Is there really wildlife, or not? I don't think so," said

Sokhun. He had seen FFI's preliminary reports from the survey, but said, "they

were not clear, not in detail."

"In this area," said Sokhun, pointing to the Samkos sanctuary on a map,

"the wildlife is already gone, so how can we protect?" He blamed the Thai

poachers for killing all the animals during the years the area was under Khmer Rouge


In contrast, in an interview with the Post last September, Sokhun described the Cardamoms

as an area with "the richest biodiversity in all Cambodia."

If there proves to be little wildlife left to protect, Sokhun held out the possibility

that areas within the Samkos and Aural sanctuaries could be logged. "Yes, maybe

some parts are suitable for production. We could allocate for production, but through

public bidding."

Complicating future attempts to manage the forest are the number of people now settling

inside the boundaries of the Samkos sanctuary.

The KR soldiers of Veal Veng District defected to the Government at the end of 1996.

But after the 1997 coup, the district's former KR commander, Iem Phan, ordered his

followers to flee to the Thai border, mine the roads leading into Veal Veng, and

again take up arms against the Government.

In February 1999 Iem Phan and his soldiers returned to the Government fold with Phan

back in a RCAF uniform sporting the new rank of brigadier-general.

By March last year all the refugee families were back from the Thai border, clearing

land and building houses mostly within the boundary of the Phnom Samkos Wildlife


The Government asked UNDP/CARERE to spearhead the reconciliation and development

efforts in Veal Veng District. With just over 5000 people now being settled there,

conservationists are concerned about their impact on the forests and its wildlife.

UNDP's Pursat office said for the reconciliation process to work, these former KR

must be kept happy - they must see immediate benefits. One of these benefits will

be the construction of an improved road into the district. Better roads combined

with other development projects such as school and pagoda construction will likely

encourage an influx of new settlers.

Around Pramouy smoke rises from the forest as land is cleared for planting. Signs

are nailed to trees lining the road with the name and the amount of land would-be

settlers have already claimed.

Veal Veng's district chief, Oun Yong, said he welcomed lots of people from the outside

to come and help develop the community.

However, the UNDP suggested these former KR still did not trust the Government and

wanted to remain isolated so they could cut themselves off at a moment's notice.

FFI believes it is critical for the survival of the forests and wildlife of the Cardamoms

that conservationists work closely with the UNDP/CARERE to curb the impact the new

settlers will clearly have on the local environment.

FFI Project Officer Oliver Maxwell said, "Unless some conservation activity

is planned now, years down the line there are going to be development problems that

could have been totally prevented if conservation planning were incorporated at this


These problems ranged from soil erosion and lack of timber resources, to the complete

destruction of the forest's ecosystem.

"We know hunting is going on. For example, you get $2,000 if you bag a tiger.

That's an awful lot of money for anybody. We know traders in Pursat and other places

are visiting the area 10 to 12 times a year to collect the harvest - captured monkeys,

snakes, exotic birds and the horns of deer," said Maxwell

Conservationists working in the Cardamoms face complicated issues and powerful competing lobbies. Former KR soldiers and their families are now settling in the region by the thousands. Illegal trade in wildlife thrives - from snakes and gibbons to tiger skins. But the greatest danger comes from loggers now cutting roads deep into the forest, readying a major assault on its bounty.

If the Government took a long term perspective, it would realize the Cardamom area

had much higher value as a protected watershed, compared to short term logging gains,

said Momberg.

"The area of the Cardamoms is relatively steep, more than 30 degrees, so if

this area is logged it would mean you have erosion. Look at Vietnam where the watershed

was destroyed, where thousands of people are losing their land and their houses and


"You would not only have problems with water supply during the dry season, but

problems with flooding during the wet season," said Momberg.

So are the creatures of the Cardamoms still alive? As the Post went to press, a message

sent from FFI's base camp via satellite phone said the survey teams from both Mount

Samkos and Tampur were reporting lots of evidence of tiger, gaur, banteng, and elephant.


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