The Area: History

Human history haunts site of new ranger headquarters

A witness to war and destruction
Despite being located in the wilderness in one of the most pristine forests of Southeast Asia, the site of the newly established headquarters of the Srepok Wilderness Area Project has a long history of human habitation. Crumbling into the earth, the remains of the ramparts of an old 19th century fort can still be seen, along with discarded quinine bottles and spent bullets, left over from colonial times when the French ruled Indochina.

Evidence can also be found of America's covert bombing raids launched on Cambodia, despite its neutrality, in a vain attempt to disrupt the Vietnamese as they marched south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail just 20km from here. Huge bomb craters still scar the site and the remains of rudimentary bomb shelters are scattered across the landscape.
Landmine sign. rel=
Landmine sign.
© WWF / Jane Story
During what was surely the darkest period in Cambodian history, Pol Pot's notorious Khmer Rouge made camp here under the canopy of the tall deciduous trees. Hidden by the high grass, they mounted their attacks against the Vietnamese, crossing the nearby border and then retreating back into the forest.

An immaculate location from all angles

At first the staff of the Srepok Wilderness Area Project were reluctant to build on this legacy, and alternative locations were considered. But their predecessors had good reason for choosing this particular site. First and perhaps foremost, it is located beside the Srepok River, a source of not only essential water but, potentially, hydroelectricity as well. But while near the river, the site is still back far enough and on high enough ground to avoid being flooded during the heavy rainy season when the river swells and much of the forest is inundated.

Work gets underway

These attributes could not be ignored, and project staff conceded that the site had been tried and tested true. Construction of buildings began in early March 2004. In line with the project's objective of providing livelihoods for people living in the vicinity of the protected area, a local contractor was hired to build the ranger station and other staff buildings, one of which will eventually accommodate the tourists who will come to this remote area to watch birds, fish and see some of the large mammals that still roam this forest.

Building houses for rangers...

The first priority, however, was housing for the rangers. They can spend weeks at a time patrolling the forest, away from their families, sleeping in the open each night in hammocks. It is vital for good morale that their accommodation at headquarters is at least comfortable. The project's technical advisor, Martin von Kaschke chose not to replicate the South African model where rangers sleep together in military-style barracks. He thought each ranger should have his own private space, so the rangers' accommodation was constructed with as many small rooms as possible.

... in the Khmer style
Built on stilts in the style of Khmer homes, the building also houses an office, and supply and radio rooms. Old lumber is being used whenever possible to avoid cutting down any trees. A septic tank has been installed and toilets will flush once a small hydro-electric pump has been set up on the river. Meanwhile, gasoline is hauled in to fuel the generator that keeps the sole light bulb on the veranda burning until 8pm, late in the evening for those who rise with the sun at 5am to head out on patrol.

Getting to the site

When not on patrol, the rangers are responsible for maintaining the half-hectare site, clearing the tall grass, and pruning the numerous mango and fruit trees that have their roots in former times. A nature trail along the river is also being developed in preparation for the tourists wanting a wilderness experience. Signs will be posted describing the biology and explaining the function of such natural phenomenon as termite hills that visitors might  be unfamiliar with.

The roads ahead

The road into the site must also be constantly looked after. Little more than an ox cart trail, deeply rutted, the road is often difficult to detect, hidden as it is by the tall grass and strewn with fallen trees that force a detour. Often, during the rainy season, the road is impassable by truck. However, there are no plans to upgrade it. Making access difficult deters encroachment of illegal loggers and hunters into the protected area. Tourists, though, are welcome. However, they are forewarned that if they want to visit the Srepok wilderness during the wet months, they may have to travel in by elephant. That won't put many off. In fact, it may prove to be a main attraction.

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