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A trip through Ream National Park

A trip through Ream National Park

One of Cambodia's most promising national parks, Ream, is taking its first tentative

steps into the 21st century with a new agenda for tourism and an emphasis on local

management.

Sarah Stephens looks at the trials and tribulations of the park over the last

few years.

Patricia O'Loghlen, Senior Trainer and ranger at Ream National Park, pondered

the situation for a moment. Seconds earlier, the boat driver, a ranger himself, had

inexpertly steered the boat full tilt into a section of mangrove trees, narrowly

avoiding tipping both O'Loghlen and the boat's other occupants, seven now-jittery

tourists, into the muddy waters. Now the boat was lodged sideways across the narrow

stream, after a failed attempt to turn around.

Luckily for O'Loghlen, one of the tourists, an Australian ranger, was game to jump

in and help turn the stranded craft around.

While this may not be everyone's idea of a relaxing holiday trip, it was certainly

a learning experience for Ream's rangers, who are just becoming accustomed to the

concept of tourists in the national park.

"A lot of people have said that there's great potential for eco-tourism here,"

said O'Loghlen, "but it has to fit in at our pace, with our training of the

rangers...I think the best approach is slowly-slowly."

"We can't predict when the tourists are going to come," she continued.

"Sometimes there are none, sometimes we get three boat loads in one day. So

we need understanding from people that the service is new and as yet undeveloped."

Despite this, there is still plenty to see. Dolphins are regularly seen in the Prek

Toeuk Sap estuary which forms part of the park, monkeys play in the mangrove canopy,

and several species of large waterbirds can also be found in the swamps.

But tourism is not the only issue of concern for the park's 18 rangers, who protect

the 21,000 hectares of coastal land. At the end of 1999 a four-year, UNDP-backed

environmental program ended, ushering in a new era for the park.

"I think certain elements of the program have been rather successful,"

said Jean-Claude Rogivue, UNDP Deputy Resident Representative. "There were four

components - environmental awareness, information management, capacity building

and demonstration projects. The objective was to work with the Cambodian government

to create environmental awareness amongst the general public, and to set up an administrative

structure within the park."

One of the great challenges for the rangers has been to work with the local communities

who live in the park, and who make a living from the protected land.

"There was quite a bit of work to be done to sensitize the local community to

the environmental issues such as logging, illegal fishing and use of the mangroves

for charcoal production," said Rogivue. "Basically you need to convince

the communities that it is in their long -term interest to protect the area and then

give them means of survival."

This included the establishment of community forests and tree nurseries, and surveys

on land use.

Illegal logging in the park has almost stopped, according to park officials. Although

chainsaws are still sometimes confiscated, the decimation the park suffered in earlier

years now seems to be a thing of the past.

"Most charcoal production in the park has also stopped," said O'Loghlen.

"There were about 30 kilns at one point, but most of them have gone now, and

a lot of the people who used them have turned to fishing."

Illegal fishing, in fact, seems to be an area that the park has yet to beat.

"There's both pushnet fishing and trawl fishing here, which is very bad news,"

said O'Loghlen. "It's depleting the resources for the local people."

While other small-scale projects, such as Wetlands International, will carry on in

the park, with UNDP's funding now gone, the park is entering an uncertain era.

"They still need to train the park rangers a lot more," said O'Loghlen,

"and they need that larger international presence there just to monitor the

bigger issues."

UNDP emphasizes that it will continue to push for further funding for the park.

"Of course, the income from tourism is very important for the park," said

Tine Feldman, Program Officer at UNDP, "but we have to make sure that the rangers

are able to educate the tourists that come, to be able to take them round, answer

questions - even to be able to speak English with the foreign tourists."

O'Loghlen agreed.

"It would be very interesting if somehow UNDP could re-direct their funding

into the tourism aspect of the park as part of a project to make it sustainable,"

she said. "The park has come a long way, but it still needs help if it is to

survive after we've all gone."

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