Environment officials and authorities in Preah Vihear province are investigating a wildfire in the Phnom Tnaot-Phnom Pok Wildlife Sanctuary that damaged more than 4,000ha of forest in recent days, said officials on March 6.

Benjamin Joseph Davis, an American environmentalist better known as Ben who is based in the Phnom Tnaot-Phnom Pok Wildlife Sanctuary, said the wildfire had been caused by people collecting either legal or illegal items like wild honey, resin, medicinal plants and turtles over a week ago.

Ben, who has been granted Cambodian citizenship for his contribution to wildlife protection in the province, said they were careless about the fire they were using, causing it to spread to more than 4,000ha of forest.

“Although the fire did not leave people or any large wild animals dead, it severely destroyed forest resources and biodiversity. In particular, it burned down thousands of rosewood trees planted together by the community over the past few years,” he said.

Due to the dry season and the lack of dew at night, many grasses and young plants have withered, making them easier to catch spark and burn.

“But what our team is very concerned about right now is poaching by illegal wildlife hunters,” he added.

Ben continued that he is now cooperating with rangers and authorities to investigate before taking legal action, while deploying forces at a number of key targets in the sanctuary to monitor and suppress potential wildlife crimes as many wild animals are frightened and fled the wildfires to safety.

However, he said that the search for the perpetrators has not turned up any clues so far, though relevant officials are continuing to research and disseminate the circular on wildfire prevention.

Neither provincial environment department director Song Chan Socheat nor his deputy Meas Nhem could be reached for comment on March 6.

However, Sok Santara, Preah Vihear deputy governor in charge of natural resource development and the environment, said the provincial administration had sent forces to cooperate with Ben and park rangers to investigate the case while continuing to educate the locals about forest fire prevention.

“At this time, our law enforcement forces are doing this work quietly. We believe that in the case of this wildfire, in addition to setting the fire to get wild honey [smoke confuses the honey bees, allowing for harvesting] there are some criminals who may have intentionally burned the forest to catch illegal wildlife,” he said.

He added that anyone who intentionally caused a wild fire should be punished for a first-degree forestry crime or a first-degree fisheries offence, which can carry a sentence of three to five years in prison or five to 10 years.