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Tigers, Elephants Returning to War-Torn Cambodia Forest

Stefan Lovgren in Mereuch, Cambodia
for National Geographic News
May 27, 2008
 
For years wildlife poacher Lean Kha had prowled the war-ravaged forests of Mondulkiri Province in eastern Cambodia looking for meat.

A former teenage soldier for the Khmer Rouge political party, he estimates that he killed a thousand animals, including ten tigers, after the fall of the brutal Pol Pot regime in 1979.

Once dubbed the "Serengeti of Asia," almost all of Mondulkiri's wildlife was wiped out by poachers during decades of conflict, which began with the war in neighboring Vietnam. (See a Cambodia map.)

Now, with Cambodia finally at peace, small but growing populations of animals—including Indochinese tigers, Asian elephants, and critically endangered species such as the giant ibis—are returning to one of Southeast Asia's last remaining dry forests.

And Kha, now 45 years old, is helping to protect them as a head ranger supported by the international conservation group WWF.

"At the time I was ignorant and did not think there was a problem when I shot those tigers," he said, sitting at the forest headquarters in Mereuch as the Srepok River rushed behind him.

"Now I know we need to protect these animals for our children and grandchildren."

Coming Back Home

Humans cannot live inside the protected Mondulkiri Protected Forest reserve. A visitor can walk for miles without seeing any sign of humans, an unusual experience in otherwise densely populated Cambodia.

And with the region's searing summer temperatures and open, shadeless terrain, it's also usually hard to spot wildlife during the day.

But camera traps that take pictures at night show a different story.

A few years ago park rangers caught their first Indochinese tiger on camera. In 2007 a camera trap produced a picture of a female leopard and her cub.

Other wildlife returning to the area include banteng, a type of ox; Eld's deer; several species of wild cats; and one of the region's last remaining wild water buffalo populations.

"There is a lot of wildlife out there, considering the beating that this area has taken," said Nick Cox, who coordinates WWF's regional dry forests program and is based in Vientiane, Laos.

While leopards are now relatively common, there may be only five to ten Indochinese tigers in the forest today.

But conservationists say that as the density of prey species increases, the number of tigers could rise to at least 30 in as little as five years.

That is, if the 70 rangers working the forest can keep poachers at bay.

Like Kha, many of them are former hunters who have spent their whole lives under the forest canopy. Now they spend at least 16 days on patrol every month, keeping strict records of wildlife numbers.

(Related: "Armed Squads Aim for Poachers, Loggers in Cambodia" [August 15, 2003].)

"All protected areas need to know the number of important prey species and carnivores, because if we don't know the credit in our bank account, we can't monitor our wealth," said Prach Pich Phirun, a research coordinator for WWF's Srepok Wilderness Project.

Cambodia Boomtown

Even without the threat of poachers, the battle for this vast forest of almost a million acres (close to 400,000 hectares) is far from over.

Cambodia's popularity as a tourist destination is skyrocketing, with foreign tourist arrivals topping two million last year, according to the country's tourism minister. And the remote Mondulkiri Province is becoming the country's new hot spot.

Draped over several rolling hills, Sen Monorom, the tiny provincial capital, has the feel of a Wild West boomtown.

A plethora of hotels and backpacker lodges have opened up, and wealthy Cambodians are streaming to the area to snap up any available land. The main road being graded and paved by Chinese contractors will ease access to the region.

"This increased activity could put a lot of pressure on the environment," said Craig Bruce, WWF's technical advisor on protected areas in Cambodia, who is based in Sen Monorom.

A housing building boom, he warned, could also lead to a surge in illegal timber cutting.

And there are signs that poaching and illegal wildlife trade are on the rise in Cambodia, where animals are being smuggled through Vietnam with the involvement of Chinese traders.

Ecotourism Plans

Conservationists are now investing in ecotourism projects in the hopes of keeping the Mondulkiri forest protected.

WWF is planning an upscale eco-resort with eight cottages along stilts on the banks of the Srepok River.

Yet money earned from such eco-projects must benefit local communities living around the forest, said James MacGregor, an environmental economist at the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development, which backs the WWF project.

"There are a lot of poor people in this area who have traditionally generated their livelihood through hunting and collecting wood," MacGregor said.

"We're asking people to forgo doing something that has helped them for years."

(Related: "Unique Mosses Spur Conservation, Ecotourism in Chile" [November 14, 2006].)

Planners envision that Mondulkiri could also become a destination for adventurous travelers, such as mountain bikers.

Mark Ellison of Cambodia-based Asia Adventures said tour operators are looking to offer tourists additional activities in Cambodia besides visiting the popular Angkor Wat temples.

"Here's an opportunity to go mountain biking in an area that is for all intents and purposes undiscovered," he said.

While a recent bicycle trip of conservationists and journalists showcased the unchartered nature of the terrain, it also turned into a harrowing ordeal at one point, with bikers getting lost without any means of communication.

Luckily a passing elephant driver had noticed tire tracks from the bikes going the wrong way and tracked down the team just as its water supply was running out.

Cox, the WWF dry forest program coordinator and one of the most experienced bikers on the trip, admitted that some work needed to be done before Mondulkiri would be ready to welcome visitors.

"There are a few kinks that need ironing out, that's for sure," he said.
 

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