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,"
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
"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,"
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
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,
"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.