Government claims controlled hunting of big game species in remote northeast can provide a framework for conservation and social development - and be a cash cow into the bargain.
Banteng, or wild cows, in Ratanakkiri province last month. These animals may soon be the target of big game hunters when a planned game park gets off the ground.
FOLLOWING internal debate within various government departments that has been ongoing for the last four years, the Council of Ministers approved Friday the establishment of a new protected area in Rattanakiri Province.
Comprising around 100,000 hectares, the O'Yadav Protected Forest (OPF) is slated to become the Kingdom's first hunting reserve, where big-game trophy hunters will be allowed to pay thousands of dollars to shoot wild animals including gaur, banteng, wild boar and deer.
According to the government, revenues would be used to protect the area, manage sustainable wildlife levels, provide funds for social development and generate income for the national budget.
"If we calculate several gaur and banteng [per year] in the next five years - gaur, a maximum of 20, and banteng about 40 - with that and other small pigs and deer, we can generate about US$4 million," said Chheang Dany, deputy director of the Wildlife Protection Office (WPO) at the Forestry Administration.
"And from royalties and licences [we could earn] about another $600,000."
Based on recent field surveys conducted in the OPF, the wildlife office estimates that there are between 50 and 80 gaur and between 250 and 350 banteng currently in the area.
The project will reduce forest clearing and illegal hunting.
A Spanish company, NSOK Safaris, has been working with the government on the reserve. Chheang Dany says several of their executives visited the area in 2006 and that an investment proposal had been submitted to the Council of Ministers.
He did say, however, that NSOK's proposal included plans to build a hunting lodge, a small airport so hunters could fly directly from Phnom Penh to the protected forest, and that they were committed to build a school and a health clinic - probably in a local village.
In theory, the Council for the Development of Cambodia (CDC) would have to approve any final investment proposal.
A controversial strategy
Trophy-hunting as a method of managing and preserving wildlife is a controversial issue that has seen hunting organisations and conservation NGOs go head-to-head for decades.
"I support the concept with the caveat that it has to be done right," said Hunter Weiler, a technical adviser to the WPO.
Seng Teak, Cambodia country director for the global conservation group WWF, said that the decision to designate the area as a protected forest was "good news" but that any hunting had to be based on "scientific information and sound management".
"This can help produce results for managing the site and help improve the livelihoods of the people," Seng Teak said.
"Otherwise, it could ruin the [animal] population. We need to ensure the population of species needed to take off is available there. It must be studied very thoroughly."
The local provincial government seems optimistic that the project will benefit Ratanakkiri.
"I strongly believe that the project will reduce forest clearing and illegal hunting," Deputy Governor Bou Lam told the Post Sunday.
Pen Bonnar, Adhoc's provincial coordinator in Ratanakkiri , said the project was better than economic land concessions that he has seen destroy forests without much benefit or compensation to local villagers.
The majority of the OPF is presently covered with deciduous forest, meaning forest cover is sparse and water is very scarce during much of the year.
The area east of the O'Tang River, which flows from the Vietnamese border southwest into the Srepok River, and north of the O'Leo River - an area of about 80,000 hectares - is too dry to sustain agricultural settlements.
"This is the best [area] of unprotected dry forest in the lower Mekong," said Weiler.
There are a few remote police posts along the border, but the area is generally open for poachers and illegal loggers.
Chheang Dany says that he has heard rumours that poachers are coming across the border and taking out wildlife trophies secretly. He also says that off-duty soldiers and hunters from the Cambodian side are taking out one banteng a week just so they can eat some meat and sell the rest to buy a few drinks to help wash it down.
But don't expect to see rifle-toting big-game hunters kitted out in safari suits passing through Phnom Penh any time soon, as a raft of regulations still remain to be passed.
The Ministry of Interior will have to decide regulations for importing and carrying weapons; the Ministry of Finance needs to determine the exact trophy and licensing fees; and the Forestry Administration will have to determine annual quotas for each species.
Moreover, the global economic downturn may for the time being take the wind out of the sails of any guy who needs to come up with the $50,000 required to walk around the jungle looking for a wild cow to shoot.