Gov’t Gives OK for Zoo In Sanctuary

Adding to a growing list of development projects approved or under consideration within Cambodia’s protected areas, Minister of Environment Mok Mareth signed off March 9 on a project that includes a zoo, restaurant and gift shop in Cambodia’s largest wildlife sanctuary.

The project, in the 402,000-hec­tare Kulen-Promtep Wildlife San­ctuary, which is located in parts of Preah Vihear, Oddar Meanchey and Siem Reap provinces, is funded by a man named Sok Hong and a US-based corporation called Cam­bodian Wildlife Sanctuary, headed by California-based lawyer David Casselman.

According to the project’s Web site, the Kulen-Promtep project includes plans for a 2,000-hectare “observation” area, where tourists can see Southeast Asian animals in pens that mimic their natural habitat.

Minister Mok Mareth could not be reached for comment Thursday. He has repeatedly de­clined to comment on development projects in other protected areas, including a resort and golf course in Kompong Speu prov­ince’s Oral Wildlife Sanctuary, and an acacia plantation and a sand mine in Botum Sakor Na­tional Park in Koh Kong prov­ince. Project agreements, signed by Mok Mareth, Sok Hong and Cas­selman, and posted on the project’s Web site, state that the project will “protect and preserve this unique and precious habitat of Cambodia.”

“The Cambodia Wildlife Obser­vation Sanctuary will consist of a tourist friendly 2,000 hectare sanctuary protecting and sheltering indigenous wildlife,” the Web site states. It will include veterinary fa­cilities, a restaurant and gift shop, and a waste-water treatment plant.

The remaining 400,000 hec­tares will be protected by the group from logging and poaching, though neither the Web site nor the posted project agreement provide details of how it would do so.

The budget for the first five years is $4.3 million. They plan to hire 100 to 500 Cambodians and  five to 10 expatriates, according to the project agreement. It is not clear whether an environmental impact assessment has been completed, as is required by law. Nor is it clear what background in conservation those who are running the project have.

Several government officials and conservationists said this week they were unaware of the project and did not know that the signing ceremony had taken place.

Suwanna Gauntlett, country director of WildAid, which is active in wildlife conservation and the enforcement of protected areas, said she has never heard of the project, or of the Cam­bo­dian Wildlife Sanctuary. Nei­ther has Jake Brunner of Con­serva­tion International nor Mike Davis of forestry watchdog Global Witness.

Chea Vuthy, press director for the Council for the Develop­ment of Cambodia, was also not aware of the project.

Chay Samith, director of the environment ministry’s Depart­ment of Conservation and Pro­tec­tion, in charge of protected areas, would not comment on the project and referred all questions to the Wildlife Conservation So­ci­ety, which has enforcement operations within Kulen-Promtep sanctuary.

Joe Walston, director of Wild­life Conservation Society, said he had heard of the project, but had not been informed of any details or approached by representatives of the project.

“If people have good intentions and would like to invest in conservation, I think that’s great,” he said. But he said it is near impossible to judge the project without details of what it actually plans to do.

Casselman could not be reached for comment Thursday. He is a senior partner at the law firm Wasserman, Com­den, Cas­selman & Pearson LLP in Tar­zana, California.

The secrecy that has surrounded other development proposals that have cropped up in Cambo­dian wildlife sanctuaries in recent weeks, combined with what seems to be a lack of conservation experience, has  many worried.

Surprised by the apparent secrecy surrounding the project, Marcus Hardtke of Global Wit­ness said: “If they really want to do what they say they want to do, why aren’t they following normal process?”


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