Former hunter Lean Kha (left) guides a boat up the Srepok River with fellow park ranger Prach Pich Phirun, March 20.
Hunter turned gamekeeper Lean Kha said he killed six tigers during his days as a poacher. Now it’s his job to protect his former prey.
Kha is one of about 20 rangers in Mondulkiri’s Srepok Wilderness Area who have been recruited by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) for a conservation and ecotourism project.
The WWF launched the project three years ago in this remote forest, which has been likened to Africa’s famed Serengeti for its abundant wildlife.
The group wants to establish an environment where wildlife can recover after years of hunting, poaching and neglect. Richer wildlife, they hope, will attract tourists and consequently encourage the government to make the area a priority.
The WWF organized a cycling expedition in March for tourism operators and media in Srepok to test the waters for ecological and adventure tourism.
The fund says the park, once developed, could attract tourists from around the world to watch birds, fish in the river, cycle and take safaris.
The plan includes building a luxury tourist lodge on the banks of the Srepok River with capacity for 60 people and a riverside bar and restaurant.
“The lodge will help the community by giving people work,” says Kha, who has made his living from the forest for more than 30 years. “Some of these people are poaching from the forest to make a living. But there would not be so many poachers if you help them find other work, if you make them wildlife guides or gives them jobs at the lodge,” he says.
Srepok project director Craig Bruce says the WWF is in discussion with a tourism operator to take over the project. Habitat, a Spanish hotel group that currently donates funds towards the project, could be running the operation as soon as a year from now, according to Bruce.
The expected expansion of the landing strip at the Mondulkiri capital Sen Monorom will allow greater numbers of visitors quicker access to Mondulkiri, Cambodia’s most desolate province, and open up new tourism activities for the country.
Andy Brouwer, an agent for the Hanuman tour company and a participant in last month’s cycling trip, says the WFF “have an area to promote that is untouched and pristine enough to attract tourists looking for an alternative to temples and beaches.”
He adds that the cycling program is still “definitely exploratory” and “someway off being ready to receive visitors.”
According to the WWF, the model used at Srepok recognizes that conservation work will not succeed in an impoverished country like Cambodia unless local people see economic returns.
“We need to consider communities in the area, and the communities need to understand the conservation work,” says Bruce.
So, in addition to trying to bolster law enforcement, the WWF is helping nearby villagers develop sources of income beyond extracting from the forest.
WWF “community extension teams” talk with locals about the negative effects of hunting and how in the long run it will cut off a major resource to them. The teams are also training farmers how to improve their chicken-raising and rice production techniques.
James MacGregor, a researcher for the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development who participated in last month’s cycling trip, says the WWF wants to protect the area without resorting to brute force.
One way to do this was by working with existing local talent. The WWF made a conscious effort to recruit former hunters, like Kha, to use their knowledge of the forest and expert tracking skills for constructive ends. As long-time residents of the area, they also have a rapport with local people that outsiders might never attain.
“It’s not about stopping everything, but regulating,” says MacGregor, explaining that rangers may use their discretion in certain cases, allowing villagers who have long relied on the forest to continue taking items or animals from it in controlled doses.
“We want locals to recognize the site as a protected area and give them something back for their part. By using community rangers, many of whom were loggers and hunters before, we have people who have an intimate knowledge of the area and who know are respected by locals,” he says.
“We avoid an authoritarian manner of protecting the environment.”
Kha says wildlife in the park, which is just several kilometers from the Vietnamese border, was heavily depleted in the late 1970s and early ‘80s when battling Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese soldiers hunted the animals for food.
For the first time in a while, he says, rangers are seeing increased wildlife.
However, Srepok’s future is not certain. Project director Bruce says “well-connected” people extract resources from the area with impunity. And charred land from slash and burn clearing peppers the landscape; brush fires can be spotted at night from the hills on which Sen Monorom sits.
In addition to the logging trucks that roll through Sen Monorom in the middle of the night, local NGO officials say the regional hub has seen more “land speculation tourism.”
The number of luxury cars paying weekend visits to scout for land deals is expected to increase once new access roads are completed towards the end of next May.
Bruce says the sooner the project is up and running the better: “The time to change tide is now, while there’s still something to protect, before it’s too late.”