Animal Experts Seek Signs of Life in Cardamom Mountains

The 21st century is not a good time for explorers. The world has been mapped and remapped, its people, plants and animals analyzed and categorized.

But a few pockets of the unknown remain, a precious few places where no one is quite sure what slinks through the forests, sleeps under the rocks or swims in the rivers.

Thirty years of civil conflict have made such a mystery of the Cardamom mountains in southwestern Cambodia. Scientists suspect there are several endangered species in the area, including elephants, tigers and rhinoceros, but it is only a guess. They do know, however, that the area is under threat from hunters, loggers and former refugees looking for a homestead.

“On a global scale, this is a top priority,” said Frank Momberg, the Indochina program coordinator for Fauna and Flora Interna­tional, a conservation group sponsoring an expedition to the Carda­moms. “It’s a historical window of opportunity.”

Beginning this week, a team of animal experts will trek into the mountains to document the wild­life of the area. With what they learn, they hope to persuade the government to take speedy action to protect the region.

Rising up from the Gulf of Thai­land to peaks of more than 1,700 meters, the Cardamom mountains mark one of the least accessible areas of Cambodia. Trips are made by boat until the rivers become too shallow and rocky, or by heavy truck until the roads become too washed out or too narrow. From there, the journey is made by foot, accompanied by locals—hired for security—toting automatic weapons.

The area’s ruggedness made it an ideal stronghold for Khmer Rouge fighters when the regime was overthrown by the invading Vietnamese army in 1979.

No one has conducted a wild­life survey there in at least the last 30 years. Scientists may have trekked into the Cardamoms during France’s colonial rule of Cam­bodia, but any records of such trips have been destroyed.

When the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh in 1975, they burned the national library. The last known trip was made by an ornithologist in 1940.

Security concerns put this area off limits to scientists even after the UN came in to stabilize Cam­bo­dia in 1991. But even the wildlife surveys of recent years have focused only on the eastern half of the country.

Last year, Cat Action Treasury conducted a survey of hunters living in the Cardamom region. Of 31 hunters, 26 reported high populations of tigers while in the forest and 29 reported high populations of elephants. The hunters also listed everything from gibbons and sun bears to crocodiles and monitor lizards.

“For the first time in history, we had an idea of what was out there,” said Hunter Weiler, FFI’s liaison in Cambodia.

Conservationists looking at the Cardamoms see a quickly closing window. Former refugees are moving into the area, poaching is rampant and logging companies are creeping up the river valleys, cutting trees and building roads that will bring more people.

“The threats are so incredible that we need to do something,” Momberg said.

The team of scientists that has assembled here from across the globe will study large and small mammals, birds, plants, reptiles, insects and amphibians in the Cardamoms. Three scientists will be looking specifically for tigers.

While the team hopes to gather solid data on what species are in the mountains, the expedition also will focus on training Cam­bodian wildlife officials to continue preservation efforts.

Each scientist will be paired with a Cambodian employee in either the Ministry of Environ­ment or the Wildlife Protection Office in the Ministry of Agricul­ture.

A scouting group headed into the mountains Tuesday to set up a base camp for the scientists, who will begin their research next week. The expedition will explore two areas of the Carda­mom range. The first month of the survey will be in the western Cardamoms near Thailand’s border.

The 333,000 hectares of rugged mountains have already been designated a protected area, though little has been done to conserve wildlife in that region.

Conservationists say animals in the area are stalked by professional hunters and are threatened by the increasing number of former refugees moving in. A social scientist will be on the first leg of the expedition, traveling through mountain villages to survey the needs of residents and their impact on the environment.

“At the moment, it’s relatively unpopulated, but as more people return, there needs to be a balance between people’s interests and the wildlife’s interests,” says Jennifer Daltry, a conservationist biologist with FFI.

The second phase of the expedition will take the team into the central Cardamoms, also about 300,000 hectares, where animals are threatened less by villagers than by logging concessions. The scientists hope to find evidence of endangered species—or new species—in the area as justification for closing the concessions.

A protected area in the central mountains would connect two already-protected areas in the eastern and western Carda­moms. “That area is very important as a corridor to link the two protected areas,” said Lay Khim, chief of the National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary Office in the Ministry of Environment.

The heart of both areas is nearly pristine, with very few roads and no signs of development. An aerial survey of the mountains this week showed forest-carpeted hills, sheer cliffs rising out of the jungle and waterfalls dumping into rivers that flow to both the Gulf of Thailand and the Tonle Sap.

“It’s really a choice piece of real estate in terms of biological diversity,” said Kirk Talbott, of the US-based Conservation International. “It’s quite a gem.”


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