By the end of next month about 70 government rangers will have been trained, with help from the U.S. Forest Service, to combat illegal loggers and poachers in the largest remaining lowland evergreen forest in Southeast Asia. But a local community network wonders how much good it will do in the face of persistent corruption.
With $150,000 from USAID and support from the U.S. Forest Service, Wildlife Alliance Cambodia organized the first of four training sessions for forest rangers patrolling the newly created Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary in February. Another 24 rangers completed the second five-day session earlier this month.
The U.S. Embassy said all 70 rangers would finish the course next month.
The goal is “strengthening the skills of forest rangers to combat illegal logging and wildlife poaching, among many other threats to the newly designated wildlife sanctuary,” said embassy spokesman Jay Raman.
Another embassy spokesman, David Josar, said the training “includes ranger duties and obligations, patrolling and safety techniques, first aid, and wildlife rescue and care protocols.”
He said the U.S. had sponsored similar courses for Cambodia’s forest rangers before and that there might be more to come.
Rangers face real threats in their never-ending campaign against loggers and poachers. In 2015, forest ranger Seang Narong was shot dead along with police officer Sap Yous while on patrol in Preah Vihear province. Authorities suspect the assailants were illegal loggers, though no one has yet been charged.
The government created the Prey Lang sanctuary in April last year, first setting aside 305,000 hectares and later expanding it to 432,000 hectares spanning four provinces—Stung Treng, Kompong Thom, Kratie and Preah Vihear.
Though one of five new protected areas designated at the same time, Prey Lang was arguably the most fought over. NGOs and local communities had been urging the government for years to grant protected status to the sprawling forest, home to several rare and endangered species, including one of the last remaining populations of wild elephants in the country. Loggers and rubber plantations have also been eating away at its edges at a rapid pace.
The Prey Lang Community Network, a loose-knit group of villagers who live around the forest, has been trying to combat the illegal loggers on its own for years, but accuses local officials and security forces of colluding with the loggers. Even when caught, few loggers are ever prosecuted to the extent the law allows.
Hoeun Sopheap, who heads the network in Kompong Thom, said on Wednesday that the government’s growing focus on Prey Lang had helped to reduce illegal logging over the past year, and that he welcomed the course.
“The most important thing is to educate forest rangers about the law because some of them can’t read…. They just don’t understand the environmental laws,” he said.
But Mr. Sopheap was skeptical it would have a lasting impact.
“It will be somewhat effective, but it won’t be effective in the long run,” he said. “What I’m worried about is that [the loggers] are connected to the local authorities, who protect them.”