Save Cambodia's Wildlife (SCW), an environmental NGO, has announced it will distribute
a landmark series of environmental books to every primary student in the country
over the next four years.
"Children are really enthusiastic about the books," said SCW director Lim
Solinn. "To them it's the highest quality publication they've ever seen."
She said the seven-part series, which will be completed later this year with the
publication of The Long Journey of the Giant Catfish, will give students in more
than 5,000 primary schools and "non-formal" education programs their first
glimpse at an environment textbook. She added that many schools were starved for
reading material, as they were unable to afford new books.
The richly illustrated stories examine the country's wildlife, and teach environmental
conservation by appealing to Buddhist principles and values regarding nature. In
the series' first book, A Walk through the Forest, a young monk wanders through Cambodia's
provinces to sanctify the trees.
"I bless this forest because it keeps the air clean and fresh with its million
leaves that breathe," he tells the reader. "The forests and wildlife make
the world a good place for our people to live in."
Besides preaching an environmental ethic, the books aid in literacy education since
the stories are written in both Khmer and English. Others in the series include Tiger!
Tiger! Why Do You Hide?, The Little White Elephant and Endangered Species of Cambodia.
About 800,000 books will be distributed, with funding provided by Danish, UK and
US aid agencies.
The project dovetails with another SCW initiative to mount a nationwide public education
campaign. That is part of a long-term effort by the NGO to change behavior and attitudes
toward the environment.
Under the project, villagers will get the chance to join in workshops that explain
environmental laws and access rights for natural resources. A trial program will
run in five provinces throughout this year, and will expand further in 2004.
SCW hopes this two-pronged approach to conservation will prevent the extinction of
some the country's wildlife. One species at risk is the highly endangered Mekong
Giant Catfish, which provided the inspiration for SCW's latest book.
Its plight has attracted international attention. Zeb Hogan, from the University
of California, Davis, and his Khmer colleagues have spent the past two years studying
the Giant Catfish, which can reach 250 kilograms. The group scoured the Mekong and
Tonle Sap rivers listening for the sounds of acoustic tags attached to fish swimming
down the Tonle Sap River.
The team tracked one fish from the Tonle Sap, into the Mekong River as it swam to
its spawning grounds north of the Cambodian border.
Hogan said the number of
Giant Catfish caught in the Tonle Sap river had reached an all-time low. Only five
were captured in 2002, compared to a dozen only two years ago. Hogan is concerned
that the fish could go the way of its cousins in Thailand, where it was once common
but now seems to have disappeared.
He said dams, dredging and diversion projects in the Mekong River Basin had altered
parts of the river's ecology, although it was still unclear exactly what such changes
would mean for the future of the Giant Catfish.
"No one understands much about fish ecology in the Mekong," he said.
Hogan's current project has tried to learn more about the
Giant Catfish by using plastic tags to track its migration, as well as the journeys
of smaller catfish and other species. It also buys the critically endangered species
from fishermen in order to release them.
"Basically, we're working with the community fishery sector purchasing the rights
to endangered species," Hogan explained. "The Giant Catfish is so highly
endangered that no matter what our budget we would buy the fish."
But Hogan predicts only a handful of the Giant Catfish will be tagged and released
by the end of this migration season in March.
"At this point it's just about getting information to people with more influence
than I do," he said.