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Saving Cambodia's Cardamom Mountains, one frog at a time

Saving Cambodia's Cardamom Mountains, one frog at a time

Cambodia is home to one of the largest intact swaths of forest in Southeast Asia that owes its relatively pristine nature, in part, to the Khmer Rouge and local animist beliefs

JEREMY HOLDEN

A child in the Cardamom Mountains holds aloft a Hoplobatrachus frog.

Voyage TO THE WILDERNESS, IN STYLE

When conservation group Fauna & Flora International started working in Cambodia in 1996, the Cardamom Mountains were a heavily mined, malaria hot zone still occupied by Khmer Rouge soldiers. Now, FFI is intent on paving new tourism channels to the Cardamoms, aided by an improved road network that has cut the commute from Phnom Penh to Pramaowee – the site of the organisation’s headquarters in Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary in Pursat – from a day to a few hours. A road under construction on the Thai side of the border connecting to Thmor Da in Koh Kong province should also improve road access to the area. Their plan is to shuttle tourists from Phnom Penh to the Cardamoms for weeklong trips of hiking in the mountains and kayaking in the Pursat River. “We couldn’t have done this before, the area was too unstable.… Finally, the Cardamoms are starting to open up,” said David Bradfield, head of FFI’s work in Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary. A percentage of profits will go into conservation efforts in the area.

AN abundance of land mines and Khmer Rouge fighters had until recently made Cambodia's Cardamom Mountains hostile ground for the last three decades. But the very isolation that cut the region off from visitors and developers has helped shield its habitats.

Often referred to as the Southwest Elephant Corridor, the Cardamom Mountains contain the largest and most intact evergreen rainforest remaining in mainland Southeast Asia, covering more than 1.5 million hectares. They also form one of only a handful of places in the world where a hiker can trek from sea level to above 1,700 metres - the peaks of Phnom Aural and Phnom Samkos - under a continuous forest canopy.

Since the area opened up at the turn of the century, it has gained the attention of wildlife conservationists, naturalists and biologists globally. The mountains have been identified as "one of the most important areas for biodiversity conversation in Asia" by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and as a Global Biodiversity Hotspot by Conservation International.

The mountains also contain hundreds of endemic species that occur nowhere else in Cambodia or the rest of the world, including unique mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, insects and plants, according to Jenny Daltry, a conservation biologist for Fauna & Flora International.

"For the scientific community, the Cardamom Mountains represent not only a relatively pristine ecosystem for study... but a rare opportunity for many new and exciting discoveries," Daltry said.

Unexplored territory

Fauna & Flora International are holding an exhibition of photographs, "Fauna and Flora in the Cardamom Mountains", at the Foreign Correspondents' Club from September 15 to 25. The conservation group is also hosting a book launch of the first Field Guide to the Amphibians of Cambodia on September 16 at the FCC.

The mountains were virtually unexplored by researchers prior to the first joint FFI-government surveys in 1999, and even now, only about 10 percent of the range has been explored by professional biologists, Daltry said.

THE CARDAMOM MOUNTAINS REPRESENT [A] RELATIVELY PRISTINE ECO SYSTEM FOR STUDY.

"When we find a new discovery, it's essential we send it out to international experts for research," said Jeremy Holden, a wildlife photographer with 15 years' experience in the region whose photographs are featured in the amphibian book and are the focus of the FCC photography exhibit. He has been shooting in the Cardamoms for nearly a decade.
"What we are finding more and more with plants and animals in the Cardamoms is that it's a new species," he said, citing as an example a new variety of the carnivorous Pitcher plant as one that is "currently being looked at by the world's leading plants experts... (who) still don't know what it is".

Featured in the amphibian field guide are several species unique to the Cardamoms, including Chiromantis Samkosensis, or the Samkos tree frog.  The latest marquee discovery in the area, it has been spotted only three times since 2007. Green blood and turquoise bones distinguish it from all other frog species, which have white bones and red blood.

Other highlights in the book are the Gheckos Cyrtodactylus Intermedius and Chemaspis Neangthyi, the latter being named after the amphibian field guide's author, Cambodian conservationist Thy Neang, who has worked in the Cardamoms for five years with the Ministry of Environment and Fauna & Flora International.

Struggling to conserve

JEREMY HOLDEN

A baby Siamese crocodile in the hands of a CI conservationist.

"Conservation in Cambodia is very difficult. It's always very slow, you can only succeed a little bit at a time. There has been some damage but if there wasn't conservation work it might be destroyed," Thy Neang said, naming logging, hydroelectric developments and land clearing for property sales as the biggest threats.

FFI has advocated a localised approach to conservation in the Cardamoms since most poaching there has been committed by "community people who may see it as an advantage to make a buck here or there" and not by relentless, heavily armed bands like those made notorious in parts of Africa, according to David Bradfield, head of the organisation's work in Mount Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary. 

In recruiting rangers, FFI sought local villagers with extensive experience in the forest, even if they were former poachers. "These people know the area exceptionally well, and we've turned their skills around," he said.

He rejected the view that Cambodia is too poor to prioritise conservation. The Cardamoms' massive forest cover is essential for the watershed process that feeds the country's agriculture and is essential even for developers, since "otherwise the hydroelectric dams will be clogged by silt", he said.

In addition to possessing a unique habitat, the Cardamom Mountains also support around 60 species that are classed as globally threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, such as the Asian elephant, banteng, pileated gibbon, white-winged wood duck, hairy-nosed otter and the Siamese crocodile.

Having been aggressively hunted for its coveted leather, this latter species was thought to be effectively extinct in 1992 but was rediscovered in 2000 in the Cardamons. A population of a couple hundred has since been found in Southeast Asia.   

The unusually shy variety compared to its larger, ferocious cousins has benefited from unusual sources of help in the Cardamoms.

The Khmer Rouge who ruled over the area imposed a moratorium on hunting large game, including the big reptile. And the cult worship of an animist minority group living there, the Chhong, has helped preserve local populations of the species.

"In their culture, if you catch or harm a crocodile, it can bring bad luck to the whole village. That's gone a long way to protecting these crocodiles," explained Boyd Simpson, FFI's crocodile specialist.

He said little-known species, like the Siamese crocodile, could hold tremendous value to the larger scientific community.

"Anti-microbial properties have been discovered in the blood of some crocodile species, ones that have been effective in killing kinds of bacteria that have otherwise proved very difficult to kill," he said.   "We still don't know the potential of what the Siamese crocodile has to offer in this regard."

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