WHAT does war-battered, impoverished Cambodia have that is the envy of its next
Give up? The answer, according to the experts, is a
mostly unpolluted environment rich in diverse fauna and flora, including many
rare species on the endangered lists of its two biggest neighbors, Thailand and
"Cambodia and Laos are very important for nature conservation in
Southeast Asia - they still have flora and fauna which Thailand and Vietnam are
losing," said David Ashwell, Liaison Officer for the International Union for the
Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
And with careful planning, Cambodia could
become a regional leader in environmental tourism in the not too distant
"There is a lot of interest to promote tourism in the country and
there is a lot of potential for environmental-based tourism,"
beautiful country. It (Cambodia) still has a lot of wildlife including
elephants, tigers, bears and many varied species which appeal to (environmental)
tourism," he said.
He said much of Cambodia's wildlife was so unique it
occupied a special place in the Southeast Asian region.
There have been
some encouraging signs that the Cambodian government also appreciates the value
of its natural environmental heritage.
An ambitious plan to create 23
protected areas of which seven will be designated national parks and ten
wildlife sanctuaries, is slowly beginning to take form.
In November 1993
a special decree was signed by King Norodom Sihanouk calling for the "Creation
and Designation of Protected Areas" in Cambodia.
"In the mainland of
Southeast Asia the natural environment is degrading rapidly. The raising of this
decree provides optimism, because it shows that in Cambodia there is a
recognition and a priority about the value of nature," said Ashwell.
said newly finished scientific surveys in northeast Cambodia had revealed
several species of wildlife threatened with extinction in most other
Those species included the Kouprey wild cow, tigers and
elephants, he said.
Phnom Penh-based journalist Nate Thayer earlier last
year led an expedition into the country's remote northeast in search of the
fabled Kouprey bovine, declared Cambodia's national animal in 1963 by King
Thayer said evidence recovered from the expedition strongly
indicated the existence of 12-20 of the animals.
One recent IUCN survey
had shown the existence of three rare storks, one of which was seen in Laos for
the first time in 30 years in 1993.
According to Ashwell the storks,
which face global extinction, had been recorded breeding in Cambodia's
"Many other birds which are now rare elsewhere will be found
here [in Cambodia]," he said. Prospects were excellent that future environment
surveys would uncover new species of wildlife.
One problem acts as an
impediment to future surveys however.
Many of Cambodia's mountainous
border areas, particularly in the northwest, remain out of bounds because of a
festering guerrilla war.
Despite these difficulties the government is
following the development of national parks closely and hopes to introduce
environmental protection laws, said Chhun Sareth, Director for Nature Protection
in the State Secretariat for Environment.
"Today it's only 19 per cent of
the country which is classified as protected - in the future we can maybe expand
the territory to 40 or 45 per cent, when more scientific studies have been
made," he said.
"We must have a special law for protection and we must
have penalties for people breaking the law in the protected areas," said