The Srepok is truly a wild river running through a wild landscape in one of most remote parts of the planet: the forests of the lower Mekong River near the border between Cambodia and Vietnam. An important and near pristine tributary of the Mekong River, the Srepok boasts some of the world's most biologically diverse natural wildlife. Sub-species of at least 140 Mekong fish, including the 2.5-foot giant carp, a close relative of the giant Mekong catfish, live in this exotic river, which hosts an immense diversity of aquatic life including the critically endangered Siamese crocodile. The river's terrestrial hinterland is inhabited by an equally amazing array of wildlife including tigers, leopards, Asian elephants, wild water buffalo and many rare birds.
More than a million hectares of protected area
The river runs through one of Southeast Asia's largest complex of protected areas comprising more than one million hectares. Flowing in a north-westerly direction from its headwaters in Vietnam, the Srepok defines the border of the Lomphat Wildlife Sanctuary in the north, while in the east it runs through the Mondulkiri Protected Forest, marking the boundary of the Yok Don National Park across the border in Vietnam. It is here in the heart of this vast, largely untouched, expanse of forest, that WWF's Srepok Wilderness Area Project is focused on 370,000 hectares with an intensive protective zone of 120,000 hectares. As a result of years of isolation during decades of war this area remains as close to pristine as can be found anywhere in the country.
The Srepok Wilderness Area is at the centre of the much greater expanse of the Lower Mekong Dry Forests Ecoregion, one of 200 large landscapes identified by WWF as being of global importance. The largest contiguous area of Dry Forest in all of mainland Southeast Asia, it is dominated by deciduous trees with patches of evergreens. Mixed in with these forests are seasonal meadows and ponds, as well as wetlands associated with the Mekong River. Wetlands play an integral part in the ecology of the Dry Forests and are particularly important for many species of birds and fish as breeding and feeding grounds at certain times of the year
The wetlands and dense forest patches are essential habitat for many of the species of large mammals looking for water and seeking to escape predators and the intense heat during the dry season. Without these refuges, there would be fewer species and individuals of key species. So abundant was the wildlife here at one time, that the Dry Forests in the eastern plains of Cambodia, with their huge herds of elephants and wild cattle, were once considered one of the great game lands of the world, comparable to the plains of eastern Africa. Large mammals that have little chance of survival elsewhere, such as the Asian elephant, banteng, gaur and tiger, can still be found here along with hundreds of species of birds many of them endangered.
Surviving... but for how long?
They continue to survive, in part, because the development that has taken place elsewhere in the country has largely bypassed this area because of its remoteness and harsh environmental conditions caused by the huge fluctuation between the wet and dry monsoons. Despite its name, the Dry Forests can be very wet with 90 per cent of the annual precipitation falling in just seven months inundating much of the land and making it impassable. This has left the area relatively unpopulated and ecologically intact making it prime property for conservation. WWF is speculating that the wildlife in this wilderness can not only be saved from extinction, but can actually increase enough to attract tourists.