phnom prich wildlife sanctuary, Mondolkiri province – The environment in Mondolkiri province and the people and species inhabiting the land continue to experience major change. Positive effects brought by the logging industry in recent years include an influx of trade and money, an increase in employment and the creation of roads to areas that were almost inaccessible.
But the negative effect is the pressure that is being placed upon Mondolkiri’s fragile ecosystems. Approximately 21 percent of the total land area has been sold to timber concessions, and millions of hectares are being illegally logged. Despite centuries of unregulated hunting, Mondolkiri’s unique biodiversity has managed to remain largely intact, but now it is severely threatened by the impact of human activity.
As the conservation-based NGOs and the wildlife conservation sectors of the Cambodian government will attest, education and local awareness are the first steps towards the protection and preservation of Cambodian flora and fauna.
One of the projects the Worldwide Fund for Nature has undertaken involves the training of local ex-hunters to become rangers and conservationists in the Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary in Mondolkiri. WWF approached the Department of Forestry and Wildlife to collaborate, and selected staff from DFW work on the project as DFW tries to control forest encroachment in Cambodia.
WWF previously worked on a similar project in Virachey National Park. Recruitment guidelines implemented by DFW staff member Thach Phoeun on that project have been used to manage the Mondolkiri training.
“The Species Project” aims to train 15 local hunters. The initial five-day schooling includes three days of classroom theory and two days of field work.
The first gathering of the hunters in a guest house in Sen Monorom was taken seriously by all involved. Im Choeun is the Director of Provincial Environmental Department of Mondolkiri Province. He has been in Mondolkiri for three years and is an employee of The Ministry of Environment. In the future, if rangers come across trouble while working, he is the man they will call should back-up assistance from local authorities be required.
Im opened proceedings with a speech prepared for the prospective rangers, explaining that the environment surrounding and supporting them was losing its biodiversity due to an increased human population and the exploitation of wildlife over the past few decades.
That night the hunters gathered again to watch a film documenting Cambodia’s wildlife. Many of the hunters were already aware of species that need protection. One hunter from Koh Nehk explained: “I know there are animals in the forests here that are special and rare, such as the Eld’s deer, tiger, elephant, Kouprey and the rhinoceros.” In more than six years of hunting in the Mondolkiri region, he has seen the Eld’s deer on a few occasions and a tiger only once.
Many of those chosen to be rangers are members of local hill tribes, most of whom are acutely conscious of the changes occurring in their immediate environment. They are also extremely knowledgeable about the landscape and the habits of the creatures they will be trying to protect.
Thirty-year-old Gneh Vanna, who has been hunting wild animals in the area for eight years to help feed his wife and three young children, expressed concern over the demise of natural resources in Mondolkiri.
“I see how this land and the animals that live here are changing,” he said. “I do not want to see so much change. When my children are older, I would like them to see the forest like it is now.”
The rangers-in-training will be provided with uniforms and learn how to use equipment such as Global Positioning Systems and heat-movement sensitive cameras. They will also be taught how to collect data, write reports and raise public awareness. The rangers will be employees of the government and be paid 52,000 riel (about $13) a month.
Lic Vuthy, a DFW employee and project manager in Mondolkiri, sees changes in the state of conservation in Cambodia.
“Now, after the last defection of the Khmer Rouge, conservationists can go deeper into the forest and collect more information on the areas being monitored,” he said. “Before, [the Khmer Rouge and the government] were always accusing one another of poaching, but now those accusations no longer exist.
“Since 1998, things have improved rapidly. Now the implementation of laws can begin, and local people can be taught where the boundaries of the protected areas lie. Public awareness will also grow when the educated rangers explain the situation to other local people.”
The animals the Species Project are focusing on in Asia are the tiger, the elephant and the rhinoceros—which has not been sighted in Cambodia since the 1930s. In the words of WWF, “Throughout South and South East Asia, populations of Asian elephants and rhinos cling to survival in some of the few remaining homes that sustain them…. They live in a rapidly changing environment they must share with humans struggling for sustainable livelihoods.”
The wardens have set up cameras around Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary in the hope of recording the species that reside there. These will be regularly checked and the trained rangers will make regular reports recording any sightings.
As for the 15 men who once supported their families by hunting, the change in their attitudes is obvious as they embark on their training programs. They hover above their GPS equipment with avid concentration and take notes like children in class.
“I heard from the NGOs and the government that the forests and the animals here are in danger,” said Sary Tre, one of the rangers-in-training. “They said that in the future the forest may not be the same as it is now. These bad changes, I do not like to see.”