The Experience

Forest phobia: Facing my fears

By Jane Story, WWF Indochina Communications Officer
Jane Story on elephant rel=
Jane Story on elephant
© WWF-Canon / Jane STORY

My fear of forests

As I set off to the Dry Forests of eastern Cambodia where WWF is undertaking a major project to preserve a wonderful, still pristine wilderness along the Srepok River, I admit I had some trepidation. I shared the common concerns about snakes, scorpions and spiders climbing into my hammock or nesting in my shoes. And I worried, just a little, that some tiger might attack in the night.

Perhaps it is natural to fear the forest. Certainly many Cambodians do, and that may be why there are only 20 students enrolled in first year forestry courses at the national university. In western cultures, forests feature prominently in frightening fairy tales as dark places where children get lost and wolves and witches wait for unsuspecting victims.

Snakes, ghosts, tigers... take your pick

It seems everyone has their fears even forest rangers. Note Ponlea is afraid he will get bitten by a snake when he gets up in the night to pee. That's natural: there are pythons and cobras in these forests. I shared his concern, as women are even more exposed when relieving themselves in the woods.
Lon Chan gets kidded by the others about being afraid to be alone in the dark, and he finally admits he is spooked by ghosts. He is not the only one. He has heard talk of ghosts from the elders in the village, who are members of the Phnong people who believe the forest is full of spirits and that the trees, rocks and rivers are animate and have souls. As they are indigenous to these forests, who can question their ancient knowledge?

Trac Chan, a mahout, confesses he doesn't sleep well when camped by a crocodile pond while Set Cren, also a mahout, is afraid of snakes, as is his elephant which will snort loudly when he sees one. The elephant is also scared of tigers and will move away quickly if he senses one close.

Electric storms: a surreal experience

Martin von Kaschke, the project's technical advisor, is well acquainted with the forest having spent much of his life in nature reserves. But that was in South Africa. Here in Cambodia he has to overcome new fears. His greatest is that of the weather, specifically violent electric storms, the likes of which he had never seen before.

"It was surreal," he says of his first experience. "You could hear it coming from Vietnam. The wind was rustling and rattling the bamboo like you wouldn't believe and then it arrived." Tied up in his hammock, he watched the sky light up "rapid fire all over. You would see the bolts of lightening behind you and then it was right on top of you. It looked like war at night, real scary at times."

The ranger who fears nothing... except man

Nothing much scares Lean Kha who has spent years in the forests of eastern Cambodia first as hunter and now as head ranger. He won't admit to being afraid: certainly not of tigers or snakes or crocodiles, the usual fears. His most frightening experience was when he shot a large gaur but failed to fell him. The beast reared and gashed him with his horn. Kha managed to break loose and had to climb a tree to escape. But that doesn't mean he is afraid of gaur. No, the only one he fears is the greatest predator of all: the human. Hunters these days carry guns, some of which are serious assault weapons, AK47s, and as a former hunter himself, Kha is acutely aware that they maybe prepared to shoot any ranger who interferes with their illicit activities.

Getting some sleep at last

With so many courageous rangers around it was not hunters that frightened me. Lying zipped up in my army-issued hammock, I trembled at the sound of the falling leaves and the creaking of the trees, imagining prowling predators ready to strike. Eventually though, I fell asleep lulled by the deep darkness and the distant chimes of the bells round the necks of the elephants as they grazed throughout the night in the fearsome forest.
Scary snake in the forest / ©: WWF-Canon / Jane STORY
Scary snake in the forest
© WWF-Canon / Jane STORY

It was surreal. You could hear it coming from Vietnam. The wind was rustling and rattling the bamboo like you wouldn't believe and then it arrived.

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