A commitment to law enforcement is needed to combat the serious threats to Mondulkiri’s protected areas, stakeholders said yesterday, noting that a failure to address systemic problems not only jeopardises local ecosystems, but threatens an ambitious, widely promoted plan to reintroduce tigers to the Kingdom.
Speaking at a workshop hosted by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) on the past four years of conservation in the so-called Eastern Plains Landscape – a project with $1.42 million in funding from the EU and an additional $420,000 from USAID and the WWF – conservationists and representatives of ethnic minority communities pointed to the widespread destruction of forests and wildlife, including within the Srepok and Keo Seima wildlife sanctuaries, that occurs with total impunity.
“Immediately after the interception [of loggers or poachers], there is a phone call ordering to release them immediately,” said Moul Phath, the manager of the Eastern Plains Landscape at WWF-Cambodia. According to Phath, until authorities can act independently and without fear of the rich and powerful patrons of the illegal logging industry, the destruction of the ecosystem will remain a pressing problem.
“We need to change the behaviour of the influential people who keep on intervening in these cases,” he said.
Phath further pointed to the presence of some 63 sawmills – of which only five are licensed – operating within the area.
A 62-year-old Phnong ethnic community member from Koh Nhek district, Rouch Chork, claimed to have witnessed such practices, citing that most often authorities will release offenders caught by community patrols, seizing only the evidence. A preponderance of reporting by The Post also points to the phenomenon of authorities seizing timber but failing to arrest perpetrators.
Ahead of the dry season, Chork noted, “many people are buying wire and other materials to make snares”.
Rohit Singh, a wildlife law enforcement specialist for the WWF, noted that the average square kilometre of forest in the region has five deer, four snares and zero rangers.
“With this situation it’s possibly difficult” to bring back tigers, he said.
Well documented cross-border poaching and logging continues to be an issue as well, according to Phath, though he was clear that forestry crimes committed by perpetrators coming from Vietnam are not the only issue: local migrants as well as local community members commit such crimes “continuously”.
“[Locals and migrants] said that they have no options . . . only the timber trade, which can provide high and fast income. But they forget to think whether in the future there will be trees for them to log,” he said.
For Phath, it’s no longer a question of informing people about the law when it comes to forestry crimes.
“We need to stop talking about education and enforce the law,” he said, pointing to the clear example of how domestic tourists will often travel to Mondulkiri and want to eat wildlife meat at restaurants whose owners are fully aware of the illegality of selling it. What’s more, he said that members of the armed forces, as well as educated individuals from all walks of life, harvest wild animals for food, medicine or trophies.
Of particular concern, he said, are the personnel guarding mining operations within protected areas that in some cases have even shot elephants.
Responding to Phath’s assertions at the workshop, Sung Kheang, the director of the Mondulkiri Agriculture Department – which is charged with enforcing forestry laws – downplayed and denied the severity of the issue, acknowledging only some “gaps” in law enforcement.
“Every crime related to natural resources, authorities and experts have intercepted a lot. We have not let the perpetrators go free,” he said.
Mondulkiri Deputy Governor Peng Sambath, meanwhile, lamented that authorities could do more if they had more resources and help from partner organisations.
The lack of enforcement appears especially severe when the 20 rangers committed to the 3,700 square kilometres of Srepok Wildlife Sanctuary is compared to those in India’s Panna Tiger Reserve, which at less than half the size has some 800 rangers and 140 scientific and support staff.
“Until we improve the protected area management [tiger reintroduction] is not going to work,” Singh said, further noting that consultation on developments such as ELCs, roads or mines should incorporate the tiger programme.