Inside the campaign to save an endangered Cambodian rainforest

We were sitting by a lush river in the Southern Cardamom Mountains, huddled around a lunch of chicken and rice, when the tip arrived via text: someone had provided the location of a camp poaching.

Within minutes, the entire group – including Darian Thackwell, the chief ranger and four of his armed crew – were rushing upstream. Finally, we hid our boat between a maze of mangroves and continued on foot, walking as quietly as possible through the thick vegetation.

For four days, I had followed a group of men who patrolled an area of ​​this vast Cambodian rainforest, protecting the land and its wild animals from the relentless threats of illegal loggers and poachers. Deep in the remote southwestern province of Koh Kong, near the Thai border, we had waded through rivers, stuck in the jungle and struggled with both leeches and unbearable humidity.

Now the team of men employed by the Wildlife Alliance, a conservation group, were finally getting closer to the poachers.

As we moved through the jungle, we found several homemade traps, of a type typically used to catch civets or other small mammals. Darian guessed the poachers might not be too far away. But then we reached what looked like a hastily abandoned camp: hammocks, canned food, clothing, and even two homemade weapons were left behind. I took a few photos as the rangers dismantled the camp, confiscating the weapons and snares.

Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains were once a stronghold of the Khmer Rouge, the fanatical Communist regime whose presence lingered in the region until the 1990s. For decades, isolated villages in the region had little contact with the region. outside world. Bloody battles were fought between the local villagers and the guerrillas. The use of landmines was prolific. As a result, the surrounding rainforest has survived as one of Southeast Asia’s most pristine wilderness areas.

As the conflict subsided and landmines were cleared, the rainforest – along with its wildlife – became vulnerable to illegal poachers, loggers and slash-and-burn farmers.

Over the past two decades, a handful of environmental organizations have fought against the clock to protect the region’s forests and wildlife.

Wildlife Alliance is at the forefront of these efforts. The organization prioritizes 24-hour law enforcement and working with local authorities, ultimately providing practical protection to around 3 million acres of the Cardamom Mountains rainforest. It also aims to create environmentally friendly employment alternatives – focusing on education, reforestation and wildlife rehabilitation and liberation – for locals who were previously involved in the illegal trade or might otherwise be forced to do so.

The work of Wildlife Alliance is perhaps nowhere more evident than in and around the village of Chi Phat, which served as a base camp during my week-long visit.

Reaching Chi Phat required a three-hour bus ride from Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, followed by a two-hour boat ride on the Preak Piphot River. Upon arrival, I was greeted by a series of idyllic scenes: a flurry of locals on bicycles, an impromptu volleyball game, an unpaved road lined with colorful houses. On the river bank, small fishing boats were anchored to houses on stilts, and a motor raft carried passengers from shore to shore: farmers with motorcycles, women carrying produce, children. in their school uniform.

But the current rose is only recent history. For many years, the majority of people who lived in this marginalized community participated in slash-and-burn agriculture or illegal logging and poaching.

It was not until the mid-2000s, when Wildlife Alliance began working with locals to create alternative sources of income, that Chi Phat began to reverse these trends and put in place a series of community initiatives. community ecotourism.

Farmers were encouraged to adopt more sustainable farming techniques. At the same time, community members came together to reclaim lost tracts of forest land by rebuilding the soil and planting native tree species. Since then, some 840,000 trees have been planted.

Additionally, former poachers – who had intimate knowledge of the rainforest and its wildlife – were recruited, trained, and equipped to become protective forest rangers. Armed, they now patrol the area on foot, by motorbike, by boat and by plane, protecting the environment from poachers and loggers.

Corruption and the financial attractiveness of illegal businesses and large-scale business development projects remain a threat. But with an ever-increasing number of locals working alongside environmentalists, saving the forest is no longer a lost cause.

Chi Phat’s location at the foot of the Cardamom Mountains makes it a prime location for wildlife tourism. A number of traditional Cambodian houses have been turned into guesthouses, and English-speaking hiking guides lead hikers on trails that cross emerald hills, mountain streams, rapids, and waterfalls. Intrepid travelers can also visit a handful of scattered rural communities, as well as a few ancient Khmer archaeological sites.

Like many regions dependent on tourism, Chi Phat has been hit hard by the pandemic. In 2020, the number of visitors fell by more than 80%, undermining a major source of income for many villagers.

But the pandemic has also underscored the importance of stemming the illegal wildlife trade, whose markets are known to harbor pathogens that can jump to humans.

Binturongs, solar bears, nebulous leopards, pangolins, civets, macaques and a vast array of birds are among the animals found here, many of which have been encountered at a wild animal release station nestled in the middle. of the forest. At the station, animals that have been rescued from the illegal wildlife trade, or that have been found in snares or in captivity, are rehabilitated and released.

During the two days I spent at the liberation station, I took several walks with Soeun, the guardian of the establishment. A kind and composed man, he introduced the animals to me as if they were members of his family – one by one, and with deep grace and care. He lived with and for them.

Soeun, who grew up in the area in an impoverished farming community, had previously participated in illegal poaching to support his family. But when the Wildlife Alliance set up the release station in 2008, it instead started looking after and releasing the animals. Since then he has worked for the organization.

On a walk together, Soeun and I passed a small grove of sandalwood amidst the green and dense hills. We saw two cubs climbing up one of the trees, probably looking for a beehive.

Soeun recognized the animals. With an obvious sense of pride, he explained that the bears had arrived at the station injured two years earlier – and that he had personally helped rehabilitate and release them.

About Patricia Kilgore

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