The Background

A phenomenal paradise of hoofed animals

"Cambodia is one of the great game lands of the world. Considering the number and distribution of big game animals, one is led to believe that parts of northern and eastern Cambodia are second only to the African game lands in game abundance. As expedition members stumbled through acres of elephant tracks and watched herds of banteng, water buffalo or Eld's deer sweeping across the parkland in billowing clouds of dust, it was not only evident that an effort should be made to preserve this phenomenal paradise of hoofed mammals, but that factors responsible for this distribution and concentration should be encouraged."

Charles H. Wharton

WWF has responded to this call from biologist Charles H. Wharton to conserve this amazing landscape, designating the Lower Mekong Dry Forest Ecoregion as one of 200 of the most outstanding ecoregions around that world where the Earth's biological wealth is most distinctive and rich, and where its loss will be most severely felt.

As recently as 1957, when Wharton described this area, the Dry Forests supported some of the largest and most diverse populations of large mammals in all of Southeast Asia. During the time of French rule in Indochina, trophy hunters came from across the world to hunt for elephants, tigers, and wild water buffalo, causing a major decline in their numbers.

The price of conflict: War and civil strife

This all came to an end during the war years in the 1970s when the Americans covertly bombed neutral Cambodia along its border with Vietnam in an effort to block the supply route along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Later, during the brutal regime of Pol Pot and in the years following the Vietnamese incursion in 1979, the forest, especially in the north of the country, served as both a retreat and battle ground for Khmer Rouge soldiers and frontier fighters.

It was during this decade of civil strife that the real destruction took place. Guns, including powerful assault rifles, were everywhere resulting in widespread hunting, not only to feed the troops but to trade as well. Elephants were drafted into service in huge numbers, reducing their populations significantly and tigers were taken for their teeth and skins.

Thriving in international isolation

But the war and subsequent international isolation during the years of foreign occupation did deter development, ironically, leaving the Dry Forests in near pristine condition albeit depleted of much wildlife. Recognizing the importance of this landscape for its rich biodiversity, the government of Cambodia established the Mondulkiri Protected Forest, covering over 400,000 hectares in order to conserve genetic resources of plants and wildlife. Of the total, 370,000 hectares have been designated as an intensive protected zone where the Srepok Wilderness Area Project is being carried out.

The dangers of development

Today, large scale development is still put off by the area's remoteness and the harsh weather conditions, which leave the landscape inundated and impassable months at a time. Nevertheless, new roads are being built opening the way for hundreds of poor migrants who are logging the trees and clearing the forest to cultivate crops. Meanwhile the wildlife trade continues unabated. If the Dry Forests are to remain intact and biologically healthy in the future, innovative and effective efforts are needed now.

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