Sam Veasna, a Siem Reap forestry official credited with spearheading most of the wildlife conservation efforts in northern Cambodia, died Saturday of cerebral malaria, which he contracted while searching for a rare wild cow in the Anlong Veng area. He was 34 years old.
“Anything that’s been done for wildlife conservation in northern Cambodia, he’s done it single-handedly,” said Colin Poole of the Wildlife Conservation Society. “He’d hear about something that had happened and he’d get on a moto and go there. He was so enthusiastic and keen and committed.”
Sam Veasna was the head of provincial wildlife in Siem Reap. Along with his efforts to survey and protect wildlife, he worked with local communities to plant trees and improve farming techniques.
Investigating a tip from Banteay Meanchey villagers in 1998, Sam Veasna discovered a population of rare eastern sarus cranes at a remote reservoir built by the Khmer Rouge in 1976.
For the past year, he had been teaching local villagers about the cranes, urging them to protect the birds rather than hunt them. He also had been pushing the government to create a protected area around the reservoir. Two weeks ago, the Council of Ministers agreed to seek a royal decree for a 10,000-hectare protected area.
“He could work in the communities, the guys loved him, and he could walk into a governor’s office and be treated with respect,” Poole said.
Sam Veasna was in Anlong Veng in early November investigating a report that a hunter had shot a kouprey, a rare forest oxen whose existence in Cambodia has not been verified for 30 years, according to Poole. He became sick two weeks later.
“This guy had such great potential,” said Patrick Evans, acting director of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, who worked with Sam Veasna on environmental projects.
Sam Veasna is being cremated in a ceremony today in Siem Reap. He is survived by his wife and three children.