Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Veng Sakhon confirmed that a draft royal decree to preserve Phnom Tamao area had been sent to Prime Minister Hun Sen for a review. The draft came on the heels of the premier’s order late August 16.

“A working group immediately prepared the royal decree to designate Phnom Tamao a conservation and protected area,” Sakhon told The Post.

Hun Sen’s instruction followed the annulment of recent land swap deals which saw swathes of Phnom Tamao area in Takeo province’s Bati district – where Phnom Tamao Zoological Park and Wildlife Rescue Centre (PTWRC) and an adjacent wildlife sanctuary are located – cleared for development. The forest clearance had drawn the ire of the public and conservationists.

The premier said that in order to plant trees quickly and in time for the rainy season, he had ordered more than 1,000 members of his bodyguard unit to use 113 machines to help plant seedlings in the affected areas.

According to authorities, 530ha of land had been replanted but there are still some areas that need to be cleaned before seedlings can be planted, thus more time is required.

"The bodyguards are there to help plant seedlings as soon as possible. The problem is not a lack of trees or manpower but more importantly is that the area needs to be cleaned up so that trees can be properly planted.

“This requires machines and people. There are at least 113 machines and more than 1,000 officers to help out,” Hun Sen reiterated in his speech during the University of Puthisastra’s graduation ceremony.

He had ordered that the area be turned into a forest park, which previously had a thin forest, saying it will have valuable trees in future.

“Planting seedlings is easy but clearing more than 500ha is difficult because the roots of the trees have to be removed and the planting itself has to be done well to ensure proper growth, especially during the dry season. The authorities also have to make sure that there is adequate water for the seedlings,” he said.

Environmentalist San Mala cheered Hun Sen's decision to keep Phnom Tamao as a protected area, and for listening to the public’s concerns.

Mala said in the case of Phnom Tamao, the government should consider making it a project study for future reference for developments relating to the environment or forest.

He said because the alleged development did not take into account the impact on the society, particularly the public’s reaction, it resulted in the loss of about 500ha of trees in the area.

"I want the government to emphasise and take this case into consideration and think carefully if there are similar development projects in the future," he said.

Both the agriculture ministry and the Forestry Administration under its jurisdiction have previously explained that the development was conducted with strict evaluation.

In addition, there was a privatisation commission with an inter-ministerial committee to oversee and evaluate the process to ensure that development does not impact the zoological park and adjacent sanctuary.