The Area: Threats

Wilderness threatened by encroachment, hunting and illegal logging

Timber! The fall of the forests
They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions - well so is the road from Sen Monorom, the capital of Mondulkiri province, to the district of Koh Nheuk. Except that it is not paved: just a dusty, red dirt highway cutting through the forest. But in its wake have come people trying to escape poverty and to find a way to eke out a living. They do that by clearing great swathes deep into the surrounding forest taking out the tall timber to sell to local markets or planting crops of corn and peanuts.

The encroachment problem

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Migrants encroach on forest rel=
Migrants encroach on forest
© WWF / Jane STORY
These migrants pose possibly the greatest threat to the still pristine wilderness and the wildlife that inhabit the Dry Forests of eastern Cambodia. Moreover, the encroachment on land along this specific 60km stretch of highway poses a particular problem. It cuts through the migration route of one of the largest herds of elephants in all of Cambodia, severing the corridor between the Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary in the west, and the protected Srepok Wilderness Area in the east.

"We are poor. We need the land" - The migrants move in...

Just days behind the bulldozers widening the former ox cart track, people have been moving in. They come from other provinces in the lowlands where the customary use of land differs from those of the indigenous ethnic people who have lived in this area for millennia. Some have put up just temporary thatched houses that will be left behind when all the valuable timber has been logged. Others have built more permanent homes decorating them in distinctive colours identified with the Cham people, a Muslim minority not indigenous to the area. We are poor. What can we do? We need land to grow food," they tell WWF Cambodia staff when asked why they have migrated to this area.

...and the forest retreats

Everywhere the sound of buzz saws can be heard, and the smell of smoke from burning stumps fills the air. Huge logs and squared planks lie in the open despite a national moratorium on logging. The law is not being fully enforced not only because of a lack of capacity on the part of the police and forestry officials, but also because of corruption. Government officials are accused of themselves encroaching on protected land. In fact, the signs along the road depicting the skull and crossbones do not warn of the presence of landmines as they are intended to, but have been posted by unscrupulous soldiers to deter settlers from taking land these officers have staked out for themselves.

Hunting and the wildlife trade

Local people have hunted in this wilderness area for centuries without depleting the wildlife that sustained them. Only when big game hunting by Europeans became popular in the late 19th and early 20th century did the populations of deer, banteng, gaur and kouprey really start to disappear. But while traditional hunters used snares, traps and cross bows, today the proliferation of firearms left over from decades of war has made hunting easier - despite diminishing wildlife.

Moreover, these days, people are not just hunting for food to feed their families but to supply the wildlife trade. Monitor lizards and turtles make up the bulk of the trade, along with snakes and pangolins, many of which are destined for foreign markets as traditional medicine or offerings in upscale restaurants. Tigers and leopards are still stalked and their rarity has only increased their price.

To stop this trade, the first activity undertaken as part of the Srepok Wilderness Area Project was to hire rangers, train them and conduct patrols throughout the area. It is hoped that by protecting the remaining wildlife, their populations will grow sufficiently to attract tourists from around the world to view them.

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