Since early this year, the illegal and anarchic culling of timber, including rare species, in Phnom Aural Wildlife Sanctuary has caused the loss of 200 to 500 trees per day to charcoal and lumber operations, which are proving nearly impossible to stamp out, local police and an NGO said this week.
The long-troubled wildlife sanctuary, which covers Pursat, Kompong Speu and Kompong Chhnang provinces, has for years been identified as the site of nearly continuous illegal logging. However, the absence of government and NGO resources has left the 255,000-hectare protected area vulnerable to timber operations.
The local NGO Natural Resource Protection Group also accused local officials of collecting bribes from local loggers in at least 10 Trapaing Chor commune villages in Kompong Speu province’s Oral district at the foot of Mount Aural.
However Hem Sophy, deputy chief of police in Oral district, said Monday he was unaware of any such bribery.
“In our district, there is much illegal logging and cutting even though our police seize their oxcarts and chainsaws,” Hem Sophy said. “Last month, we caught 20 oxcarts and warned them, but later on they were doing the logging and cutting again,” he said.
“As we crack down more on illegal logging in the Aural sanctuary, it increases. We can’t stop them,” he added.
Chhut Wuthy, head of NRPG, said Monday that 50 to 100 oxcarts per day are transporting timber, including hardwood and luxury species as well as rosewood, to local traders and paying $10 to $15 per oxcart to sanctuary officials.
“If they didn’t all pay bribes, the illegal loggers couldn’t do illegal cutting…our villagers here wouldn’t dare cut trees in the Aural sanctuary,” he said.
Environment Minister Mok Mareth could not be reached Thursday while Chhay Samith, director of the ministry’s Department of Nature Conservation and Protection, which is responsible for 24 of Cambodia’s conservation areas and currently administers Phnom Aural directly, said he was too busy to speak to a reporter.
A villager in Trapaing Chor commune’s Longhem village said Wednesday that conditions in the sanctuary had worsened since the unexplained removal of its highly regarded director, Meas Nhim, in March. Meas Nhim could not be reached Thursday.
The conservation NGO Fauna & Flora International suspended activities in the sanctuary in 2005 after two Environment Ministry forest rangers were shot dead in an attack blamed on loggers.
Earlier that year, FFI had said in a report to donors that RCAF soldiers had been intimidating rangers into supporting logging operations in Trapaing Chor commune.
Kompong Speu Provincial Governor Kang Heang said the scale of logging in the sanctuary is far smaller than NRPG claims.
He also said he instructed NRPG to halt their investigations of illegal logging as they had not informed authorities of their work.
“I accept that our villagers are still cutting some trees or digging up roots to make charcoal but it is not anarchic cutting as the Natural Resources Protection Group claims,” he said.
Officials, he added, have the situation under control.
“Please don’t worry. We know how to do it.”
(Additional reporting by Douglas Gillison)