SEE­ING THE TREES FOR THE WOOD

The Car­damom Moun­tains are the forested jewel in Cam­bo­dia’s crown and new tented re­sorts are help­ing in its con­ser­va­tion.

Action Asia - - CONTENTS - Story and pho­tog­ra­phy by Marissa Carruthers

CHUM KHENG STANDS SOLEMNLY IN front of a cache of seized weapons. Rust­ing hand­made ri­fles are propped against a wall in­side Preak Tachan Rangers’ Sta­tion. Next to them is a pile of chain­saws used to fell the area’s rapidly dwin­dling for­est. The wall out­side is lined with tan­gled webs of green net­ting and wire: snares used to catch the en­dan­gered wildlife that call the Car­damom Moun­tains in Cam­bo­dia home. Kheng is one of just 12 rangers tasked with pa­trolling a 180-square-kilo­me­tre patch of the Bo­tom Sakor Na­tional Park that was snapped up by NGO Wildlife Al­liance in the mid-2000s when the Cam­bo­dian gov­ern­ment broke the area up into con­ces­sions. To keep it from the clutches of ram­pant log­gers, in 2013 the or­gan­i­sa­tion started em­ploy­ing rangers to pa­trol the area. Now, tourists can take a hand too, help­ing to pay for the rangers by stay­ing at the Car­damom Tented Camp (CTC), a part­ner­ship be­tween Wildlife Al­liance, Mi­nor Ho­tels and travel com­pany Yaana Ven­tures. For the last few decades, the Car­damoms have been pil­laged by il­le­gal log­gers raz­ing swathes of trees for lux­ury tim­ber to sell abroad, and poach­ers hunt­ing rare species to traf­fic. Pre­cious woods com­mand a hefty price tag – rose­wood, for ex­am­ple, sells for be­tween US$5,000 and US$8,000 a cu­bic me­tre. Land con­ces­sions have also been dished out to com­pa­nies who re­place the trees with agri­cul­tural devel­op­ment, in­clud­ing palm oil and rub­ber tree plan­ta­tions. NGO Open Devel­op­ment Cam­bo­dia says the coun­try’s forests are dis­ap­pear­ing at a rate of 2,000 square kilo­me­tres a year. NGO Wildlife Al­liance adds that Cam­bo­dia has one of the high­est rates of de­for­esta­tion in the world. Wildlife traf­fick­ing, es­ti­mated to be worth US$19 bil­lion an­nu­ally world­wide, is also big busi­ness. Crit­i­cally en­dan­gered Sunda pan­golins – a lo­cally oc­cur­ring species of what is said to be the world’s most traf­ficked mam­mal – can fetch up to US$600 per kilo­gram on the black mar­ket. This makes guard­ing the jun­gle a deadly game. Kheng’s voice falls as he re­calls a col­league who was shot dead while sleep­ing next to him on a pa­trol of an­other area of the Car­damoms. “Poach­ers came and killed my friend in the night,” he re­calls. “They ex­pected to kill me too, but they couldn’t see me be­cause my ham­mock was closed. I man­aged to run away.” Kheng, who has spent a decade pro­tect­ing the for­est, knew the risks in­volved. In his pre­vi­ous role, he worked along­side en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivist Chutt Wutty. “We were friends. We worked to­gether to pa­trol the jun­gle and pro­tect the for­est,” he says. Wutty was killed in April 2012 while in­ves­ti­gat­ing il­le­gal log­ging and land seizures in for­est close to the Thai bor­der. “A lot of peo­ple don’t like us be­cause they don’t like what we’re do­ing to them,” Kheng says. “I don’t know when I will die be­cause I live in the sun and other peo­ple live in the dark, but I don’t care be­cause I have al­ready de­cided to pro­tect the for­est and will keep work­ing.” In the first year of pa­trols or­gan­ised by Wildlife Al­liance, 2,200 snares were re­moved and a huge num­ber of chain­saws and home­made

guns were con­fis­cated. A di­ver­sity of wildlife was also res­cued, in­clud­ing pan­golins, deer, snakes and wild pigs. “In the last five years, poach­ers and log­gers are 99% gone from this area,” Kheng says with ev­i­dent pride. The pre­vi­ous day, I’d ar­rived at the small river­side vil­lage of Tra­peang Rung af­ter a five-hour taxi jour­ney from the cap­i­tal, Ph­nom Penh. Here, CTC man­ager Al­lan Michaud was wait­ing with the camp’s brightly coloured mo­torised boat. We snaked up the Tra­peang Rung River, then turned up its trib­u­tary, the nar­rower Preak Tachan River, where we be­gan me­an­der­ing through stands of man­groves dot­ted with palms. Mi c h a u d i s E n g l i s h b u t h a s b e e n a Cam­bo­dian res­i­dent for al­most 18 years, spend­ing most of that time doc­u­ment­ing wildlife. As we twist and turn up the river, he points out places where he re­cently spot­ted storks nest­ing, pea­cocks strut­ting and ot­ters swim­ming. His sto­ries draw on his wealth of ex­pe­ri­ence with lo­cal wildlife and he tells me of the time he se­cured the first photo of the coun­try’s na­tional bird, the Gi­ant Ibis. That came on a gru­elling 15-day ex­pe­di­tion in north­ern Preah Vi­hear prov­ince in 2001, and pro­vided in­con­testable proof that the bird was alive af­ter decades of talk of it be­ing ex­tinct. Af­ter about 40 min­utes, we ar­rived at CTC and dis­em­barked at a small wooden dock cum sun deck. I was shown to my tem­po­rary home, one of nine sa­fari-style tents spaced through the tall grass of a wide clear­ing, flanked by dense for­est. It was early Septem­ber – the mid­dle of mon­soon sea­son, when heavy rains hit pretty much daily. While it’s my favourite time in Cam­bo­dia, when the coun­try­side springs to life with colour, it’s not the best time to be head­ing into the jun­gle. “The jun­gle can be re­ally tough when it’s rain­ing,” said Michaud, not­ing that an­i­mals pre­fer to avoid the rain too and that my visit co­in­cided with leech sea­son. At 5am, I awoke to apoc­a­lyp­tic claps of thun­der and light­en­ing flashes, sig­na­tures of the mon­soon sea­son. A deaf­en­ing ham­mer­ing of rain on the tent’s can­vas quickly en­sued. Thank­fully, mid-way through break­fast the rain eased, and the sun started to el­bow the an­gry clouds aside. By the time I climbed into the two-man kayak at 7am, only a few wisps re­mained amid a pierc­ing blue sky. Tina was my guide for the day. Hail­ing from the vil­lage of Chi Phatt about 40km away, the fa­ther-of-two told me sto­ries of his child­hood as we pad­dled about four kilo­me­tres along the tran­quil Preak Tachan. Snake en­coun­ters fea­tured heav­ily – the area is a-slither with a

range of deadly ser­pents, with CTC’S wel­come book de­tail­ing eight of the most dan­ger­ous, in­clud­ing the king co­bra, banded krait and Malayan pit viper – and there were also tales of deal­ings with pesky mon­keys while scour­ing the for­est for edi­ble plants. Within an hour, we ar­rived at Preak Tachan Rangers’ Sta­tion, a makeshift wooden hut with a tin roof over­look­ing the river. The Cam­bo­dian na­tional flag flew proudly out­side and chick­ens scarpered among a small gar­den of pineap­ples, herbs and other veg­eta­bles as we walked up. It is here I met Kheng. He in­vited me in­side to show me their col­lec­tion of seized weapons and chain­saws – just a frac­tion, he said, of the haul Wildlife Al­liance’s rangers have gath­ered over the last five years. They man­age a to­tal of eight ranger sta­tions across the Car­damoms, car­ry­ing out about 8,000 pa­trols a year, walk­ing close to 20,000 kilo­me­tres in the process. Since 2002, the rangers have res­cued al­most 4,800 an­i­mals, seized 14,300 chain­saws, re­moved 155,000 snares and pros­e­cuted more than 640 tres­passers. While they man the front­line of con­ser­va­tion, fur­ther sup­port from tourism is to come in Novem­ber 2018 in the shape of a five-star, low-im­pact re­sort from the Bens­ley Col­lec­tion – Shinta Mani Wild. The re­sort is in an area of strate­gic im­por­tance: a 350-hectare val­ley con­nect­ing Bokor and Kirirom na­tional parks pro­tected since 2016 as the South­ern Car­damom Na­tional Park. The site was snapped up by Bens­ley and his part­ner Sok­oun Chan­preda dur­ing an auc­tion where the gov­ern­ment was sell­ing off parcels of land for eco­nomic devel­op­ment con­ces­sions. Shinta Mani Wild’s op­er­a­tions will fund one ranger sta­tion, adding to the ex­ist­ing hand­ful in the na­tional park. “[Tourism] plays a huge and grow­ing role in con­serv­ing the en­vi­ron­ment,” says Bens­ley. “In many places, the gov­ern­ment can­not af­ford to pay for the pro­tec­tion of nat­u­ral ar­eas, man­age­ment of parks and for sci­en­tific re­search. High yield, low vol­ume tourism can pro­vide min­i­mum im­pact so­lu­tions that can eas­ily pro­vide a fi­nan­cial life­line to pro­tect and man­age nat­u­ral ar­eas sus­tain­ably. Tourists are will­ing to pay dol­lars to see and ex­pe­ri­ence these beau­ti­ful ar­eas in in­ti­mate ways with­out crowds.” The up­mar­ket camp brings with it a taste of the high life, aim­ing to evoke a sense of ac­com­pa­ny­ing Jacky Onas­sis on a lux­ury jun­gle sa­fari. The for­mer First Lady trav­elled through­out Cam­bo­dia with for­mer King Si­hanouk in 1967. Af­ter ar­riv­ing at the re­cep­tion lounge via road or he­li­copter, guests reach the re­sort proper via a 380-me­tre zip line across the fast-flow­ing river. Jeep trans­fers are avail­able for those not want­ing such an adren­a­line-fu­elled ar­rival. As with CTC, Shinta Mani Wild is in­tended as a base for ex­plor­ing the for­est on wa­ter­ways and trails, per­haps ac­com­pa­ny­ing Wildlife Al­liance rangers and re­searchers on pa­trols to check cam­era traps and con­duct wildlife stud­ies. One team of naturalists from the Royal Univer­sity of Ph­nom Penh, for in­stance, have de­vel­oped a net­work of hikes over the last two years as they have stud­ied the flora and fauna. Af­ter wrap­ping up our time with Kheng, one of his col­leagues emerged from the back of the hut. A tall, stern-look­ing Cam­bo­dian sport­ing full cam­ou­flage gear, Ray Ban sun­glasses and a ri­fle, he was to be our es­cort back through the for­est to camp. Sadly, the damp kept most of the wildlife out of view, but the for­est was alive with sound, and Tina picked out bird calls, gib­bons chat­ter­ing from the tree­tops and the buzz of ci­cadas. There was one lo­cal in­hab­i­tant we were pleased to not en­counter too – ar­riv­ing back at camp, mirac­u­lously leech-free. Dis­tant rum­bles and a threat­en­ing sky swept

in by early af­ter­noon, but I wasn’t about to let the weather dampen my spir­its. De­spite the omi­nous air, Tina and I headed back out on the kayak to ex­plore more of the area’s spi­der­web of wa­ter­ways. “We’re go­ing to get wet,” he warned. Again though, the weather was on my side and the rain held off. One pay-off for vis­it­ing dur­ing rainy sea­son is the wa­ter, which is de­li­ciously clear. Even in deeper stretches, I could clearly trace the gnarled puz­zle of roots down to the white sand of the riverbed. The wa­ter was ab­so­lutely mo­tion­less, dis­turbed only by in­sects danc­ing on the sur­face. Per­fectly re­flect­ing the lush fo­liage that hugged its banks, it be­came dis­ori­ent­ing at times, like we were afloat the air and not wa­ter. The only sounds were those of na­ture at work and the gen­tle swish of our pad­dles. Be­sides a red squir­rel dart­ing through the trees, I wasn’t for­tu­nate enough to spot much wildlife, but we know there’s plenty lurk­ing about. In late 2016, the rangers set up 40 cam­era traps and cap­tured im­ages of sun bears, clouded leop­ards, dhole (wild dog) and the greater hog bad­ger – all listed as vul­ner­a­ble or en­dan­gered species. More com­mon wild pigs, civets, macaques and sev­eral species of deer were also caught on cam­era. Bird­ers have plenty to en­joy too. Malayan night heron, rarely seen in the area, have been caught on cam­era. The en­dan­gered Asian woolly necked stork, the red-listed lesser ad­ju­tant and green peafowl also roam the area, and colour­ful stork-billed king­fish­ers, great horn­bill and ori­en­tal pied horn­bills have of­ten been seen fly­ing close to camp. Thanks to ini­tia­tives such as CTC and Shinta Mani Wild, and the tire­less work of the rangers of Wildlife Al­liance, there’s re­newed hope that the patch­work of forests that re­main in the Car­damoms can be pre­served for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions to en­joy. “When peo­ple come into the jun­gle, they come to poach or cut trees,” Kheng told me. “They rarely come here to do good things.” With time, these eco-re­sorts could help change his mind.

AA

IN HARM’S WAY Pro­tect­ing the forests can be a dan­ger­ous busi­ness: many poach­ers and trap­pers ap­pre­hended by rangers are armed.

NET­TING A GOOD HAUL Join ranger pa­trols to do your bit for the pro­tec­tion of the for­est.

WA­TER VIEW A gen­tle pad­dle on the Preak Tachan River.

GLAMP SITE The Car­damom Tented Camp is per­fectly sited for jun­gle ex­cur­sions.

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