Forestry officials and the conservation NGO WildAid on Wednesday kicked off an effort to protect an “elephant corridor” in the Cardamom Mountains in southwest Cambodia, which is one of the last remaining natural forests in Asia.
WildAid director Suwanna Gauntlett pledged $2 million over three years to protect 158,000 hectares of the southern Cardamom Mountains if the government issued a subdecree this year declaring the area a protected forest.
At a workshop on Wednesday, provincial governors and development and wildlife officials discussed how best to protect the area. They also reviewed a new study finding evidence of 110 elephants in the area, as well as other rare animals such as pileated gibbons, Siamese crocodiles and the silver langur.
The study, though funded by US-based WildAid, is the first to be carried out exclusively by government foresters without foreign advisers. Conference attendees familiar with the Cardamoms said they had not had a chance to read the study carefully, but expressed support for the proposal.
“No doubt areas within the proposed [elephant corridor] are very important for conservation,” said Richard Paley of Flora and Fauna International, which surveys wildlife elsewhere in the Cardamoms. “For elephants alone it’s absolutely critical.”
“It’s more evidence of the conservation value of the southwest, and that can only help us,” said David Mead, country representative of Conservation International, which helps protect parts of the Cardamoms. “It may lead to a wider protection zone.”
In opening remarks, forestry department chief Ty Sokhun expressed support for the area. He said Cambodia had 29 protected areas covering 4.5 million hectares, or one-quarter of the country’s land mass. The Central Cardamoms is the second largest, covering 401,000 hectares. The biggest is in Mondolkiri, at 429,000 hectares.
The central portion of the 1 million hectare Cardamoms has been protected since last year. In June, the government canceled Grand Atlantic Timber’s logging concession in the Central Cardamoms.
In May, the government canceled the concession of Vuthy Pearnick in the southern Cardamoms. Forestry observers said the company was bankrupt.
WildAid and forestry officials plan to ask the government to protect the area rather than hand it to another logging company. The area links several other sanctuaries: The protected Central Cardamoms to the north; Phnom Samkos wildlife sanctuary to the west; Phnom Oral wildlife sanctuary to the East; and the Botum Sakor national park to the south.
The new protected area would allow elephants to migrate from Botum Sakor to the high country of the central Cardamoms, said Hunter Weiler of the Cat Action Treasury conservation NGO. The Central and Southern Cardamoms comprise one of the last remaining elephant migration routes in Asia, the study said.
Many residents in the area harm the environment through their livelihoods but are not aware they are doing so, the study said. Most of the nearly 9,000 residents in the area practice slash-and-burn agriculture, destroying hundreds of hectares of forest each month. The forest destruction leads to erosion, damaging waterways.
Local residents also poach and sell endangered wildlife, and the construction of Route 48 has made it easier for poaching rings to infiltrate the area, the study found.
WildAid is proposing to help pay for government forest patrols to stop poaching and burning. The study proposes relocating villagers living in sensitive areas to three new villages, where WildAid will construct a school and health center and provide credits to help villagers switch to conventional agriculture.
Gauntlett said the forestry department and WildAid would propose the subdecree to the Council of Ministers in a week, if conference attendees agree.
(Additional reporting by Van Roeun)