Conservation organisations are urging the Cambodian government to take immediate action to halt the “rapid rate of destruction” of the recently created Phnom Tnout Wildlife Sanctuary in Preah Vihear province and the endangered species found in the protected area.
A group of eight organsations, including the World Wildlife Fund, the Wildlife Alliance and the Wildlife Conservation Society, released a statement on Wednesday expressing “great concern” at the situation in the sanctuary.
Among the endangered species that are under threat at the sanctuary are bantengs, clouded leopards, sun bears, gibbons, pangolins, dholes and other large waterbird species, according to the statement.
These concerns come on the heels of the government last month dissolving the Snoul Wildlife Sanctuary in Kratie province and the Roneam Duan Sam Wildlife Sanctuary in Battambang and Banteay Meanchey provinces after both protected areas were found to have been completely cleared illegally.
“As is increasingly the case in other protected areas across Cambodia, the Phnom Tnout Wildlife Sanctuary is experiencing intensive encroachment through land speculation, illegal logging, and illegal hunting of Cambodia’s wildlife species,” the organisations' statement reads. “Unless immediate action is taken by the appropriate authorities to enforce the rule of law and to protect this natural heritage, these natural resources may be irretrievably damaged and lost.”
Sao Sopheap, spokesman for the Ministry of Environment, couldn’t be reached for comment and Srun Darin, also a spokesman for the ministry, hadn’t responded to a request for comment as of late Thursday afternoon.
However, the ministry on its official Facebook page posted a brief statement downplaying the organisations' remarks, saying the organisations had congratulated the government for its efforts to protect and manage the country's natural resources, and had supported authorities in taking action against encroachments, illegal loggers and poachers in order to guarantee the preservation of protected areas, especially the Phnom Tnout Wildlife Sanctuary.
The organisations, in the opening line of their statement, acknowledge the government's effort before going into their concerns.
Ken Sereyrotha, country director for the Wildlife Conservation Society, said land grabbing and wildlife poaching continue to be a concern and unless the government takes action, it will soon be “too late”.
Sereyrotha blamed different groups for the crimes, including seasonal migrants who are incentivised and encouraged by “opportunists” to help clear the land.
“It’s a big challenge,” he said.
The government needs to enforce the law and educate people as to who has rights to the area, he added. Sereyrotha said he had also been told that the area doesn’t have many environmental rangers.
“The Ministry of Environment needs to increase its budget to have more people on the ground,” he said.
Sen Teak, country director of World Wildlife Fund Cambodia, said there are only three rangers at the sanctuary and a few community patrol members for an area that covers 42,097 hectares of forestland.The illegal activities at the sanctuary " are great concerns."
"Thorough investigation bringing perpetrators to the court is needed," he said via email. "Meanwhile, increasing ranger numbers on the ground and implementing regular patrolling and strict law enforcement are all important action. It is important to deploy trained and effective rangers for protection and enforcement."
Sharyn Davis and her husband Ben Davis built a home in the middle of the forest in Preah Vihear province in 2015 in an effort to protect the area, and have since established an eco-tourism business in a community forest that’s part of the Phnom Tnout Wildlife Sanctuary, but challenges remain.
“We set up the place for the purpose of protecting the forest there,” she said. “The biggest problem is poaching, clearing and logging. We see it every day. We were naive that it would be easy.”
Davis, whose husband helps patrol the area, said the main culprits, for the most part, are local villagers and outsiders who come from as far as Battambang province.
When people get caught committing forestry crimes and get off with no punishment, she added, “more people see that and they are more confident to come” and do the same.
Natural habitats and wildlife species provide important ecological functions as well as sustainable livelihoods, the statement says.
“As such, we urge the Royal Government of Cambodia, to take appropriate action, without delay against offending land speculators, illegal loggers, and wildlife poachers in order to ensure the protection and sustainable management of this important protected area for current and future generations,” the statement reads.
Teak, of the World Wildlife Fund Cambodia, said that "without responsive action by appropriate authorities, illegal activities in the wildlife sanctuary will likely escalate harming local communities and environment."