Protecting Mondolokiri’s Forest From Illegal Loggers Is a Military-Style Operation

At a remote camp tucked along a logging road in Mondolkiri province, soldiers prepare for a mission.

Boots thud on the wooden floor. Backpacks zip shut and swing onto broad shoulders. An AK-47 is set down hard on a bench. Someone shouts. “It’s time, it’s time.”

The group bounds into a waiting pickup truck. It coughs to life them gains speed on a dirt road cutting through the lowlands. As the truck rolls on, the rich green forests of Mondolkiri unfurl themselves toward the horizon.

Five minutes have passed since I arrived at the shuttered logging camp where these forest rangers work and live. I had only expected to stay at the camp and talk, not race into the jungle.

The group fights illegal logging by means more direct-and, some say, more effective-than the weighty forestry legislation recently debated in distant Phnom Penh.

They hunt illegal loggers. Armed with weapons and authority granted to them by the Department of Forestry and Wildlife, they have the power to arrest, detain and confiscate. Poachers are fair game. Suffused with a righteous sense of protecting the wilderness, the men spend long stretches of time in the jungle.

The appeal of their jobs is easy to understand. Here, where the trees still conspire in a canopy rich with the flora of tropical Cambodia, rare trees stand like jewels among ubiquitous stands of bamboo. Conservation groups say this province is the only area in Cambodia where the Indochina tiger still breeds; elephants, guar, puff-cheeked gibbons and other exotic creatures live here in significant numbers.

Teams of loggers, sometimes armed, trek through this primeval wilderness with chain saws and specialized bicycles to pluck the best wood from the forest and haul it off to Vietnam, where it is made into furniture.

Luxury hardwood, like that of the Beng tree, can be worth thousands of dollars on the local market and thousands more abroad. One Phnom Penh environmentalist said the tree costs $400 to $1,000 per cubic meter in local markets.

Bands of loggers, usually three or four to a group, slip through the jungle with the prized trees cut into refrigerator-sized blocks. Normally no one would stop them. As the rangers’ pickup hurtles toward a checkpoint, though, it looks like today may be different.

Wind buffets the group as the truck sails along a road littered with potholes. A soldier in front of me leans on his AK-47. The prospect of meeting armed loggers weighs heavily on my mind as we turn off the road and plunge into the brush.

Almost on cue, a small logging camp appears. Cut trees and snapped limbs litter a clearing. The truck slides to a stop and we leap to the ground. A campfire sends telltale wisps of smoke skyward. Whoever made it is nearby.

I’m moments away from diving under our truck when the leader of the rangers turns to his guide.

“Lunch?” he asks casually.

“Yeah, let’s eat,” the guide says.

The soldiers pull Tupperware containers from their packs. Rice and chicken, not bullets and mayhem, greet my first few minutes with the team.

This camp belongs to a team of government loggers. They have permission to cut logs and repair a bridge on the road to Sen Monorom, the capital of Mondolkiri province. They will not face the mettle of the ranger team.

They can be a fearsome bunch. Just 11 in number, they come from the provincial offices of the Cambodian military and the local police. They are led by an experienced wilderness guide who walks at the head of the patrol scouting for hidden snares, animals and evidence of loggers or poachers.

The men were selected by the Wildlife Conservation Society, the organization funding this ranger effort. They have instructions to operate within the logging concession of the Samling company, a Malaysian logging company with concessions in Koh Kong and Mondolkiri provinces that has worked with the Wildlife Conservation Society on projects in Malaysia.

It is one of the only logging companies in Cambodia to find itself aligned with a conservation group; WCS officials portray the relationship as a progressive way to both protect and profit from the forests.

“They are interested in their image,” says Colin Poole, the country director for WCS in Phnom Penh. The company generally considers wildlife conservation important, he adds.

Asked if the WCS program was merely allowed into the concession to protect Samling’s trees, Poole points out that Samling has their own guards.

Secondly, the trees that the illegal loggers want are rare first grade luxury woods that have been skipped over by the commercial concessionaires in favor of second grade wood that they sell in bulk for timber.

Officials at Samling, which has stopped cutting trees in Cambodia pending a government review of all 15 logging companies operating in the country, were not available for comment. No one answered phone calls at their Phnom Penh office.

The ranger team finishes lunch and files into the jungle. Within an hour, we’ve found three Beng trees that were recently cut. Marks on the tree trunk show evidence of a chain saw. The loggers took the heart of the tree but left most of its branches and smaller portions of the trunk behind.

Tim Sovann Rith, the head of the ranger team, marks the spot with a GPS unit and the patrol moves on, prepared to return here in case the loggers come back to pick up more pieces of the tree.

It’s discoveries like this that remind everyone why they are on patrol, said Rith.

“I’m here because this is my talent and my skill to do this patrol,” he said. “The timber and wildlife in Cambodia is endangered, so this way I can help preserve our natural resources.”

But what difference have they made so far?

In the two instances in which they have arrested loggers, the ranger team has not had to use force. That’s not always the case.

“Sometimes we have a verbal threat,” said Tim Sovann Rith, the Department of Forestry and Wildlife official who runs the patrol group. “We hear rumors about people who ask why we want to be the strongman here. People who say ‘The tree belongs to the state, so why do you show your face?'”

And sometimes they face real danger.

Someone, perhaps local government officials who were conspiring with illegal loggers, fired at the ranger team in April, shooting over their heads in warning. The ranger team did not return fire and the incident ended without any casualties.

It was a significant encounter, though, because at just eight months old, the ranger team is just beginning to make their presence felt among the loggers and poachers who work in this area.

Poole says he doesn’t expect more confrontations.

“I had initial concerns with this, but less so now because the government has been dealing with it,” said Poole. Eight Vietnamese loggers who were arrested in April are still in jail in Sen Monorom, according to WCS.

Local prosecution of the loggers may prove more difficult: The local police chief in Sen Monorom said recently that he has just two men in jail right now, neither of them loggers.

Despite the porous prosecution of their first arrests, the WCS ranger team has slowed loggers and poachers in the region of Mondolkiri where they have patrolled, said Tim Sovann Rith.

“Although illegal logging is still going on in a number of places, it’s less than before,” he said.

For one thing, the poachers and illegal loggers have had to get smarter to avoid detection, Rith said. The extra effort might deter some people from coming into the area at all.

“When we have lunch they follow us on motorbikes and then estimate how long it will take us to get to where we are going,” he said.

A man who followed the team one morning as they left their logging camp to begin a new patrol said he was just out driving-Tim Sovann Rith was sure the man was spying for loggers and poachers already in the forest.

They wear less than fearsome-looking rubber boots, a defensive shoe to stop the abundant brown leeches that crawl along the forest floor from crawling up pant legs. The boots are ringed with a strip of cloth, which is doused at regular rest stops with acidic water from a vial carried by the lead guide.

Unprepared, I spend two days hiking with the rangers and become accustomed to the sudden pinch that signals another leech biting into my flesh.

The patrol stops one afternoon and the lead guide points to the center of the trail. A harmless looking pile of twigs is arranged in a square. Careful inspection reveals a well-made snare, one large enough to swing a person, and certainly a tiger, by their ankles.

Snares are the preferred method of capture for poachers. The rangers dismantle several and confiscate the materials-often a motorcycle or bicycle’s brake cable-used to make the snare.

This sort of armed law enforcement has become a popular program for conservation groups in the past year or two. Conservation International now has more than 90 people working on patrols in Koh Kong and Pursat provinces, with a focus on protecting the biodiversity of the Cardamom mountain range.

The conservation groups are each going about the protection of wildlife in slightly different ways. WildAid, a second group, makes patrols that include raids on restaurants serving wild game. A third program run by the CAT Action Treasury has some 43 staff, according to Hunter Weiler, project coordinator, operating in Koh Kong, Mondolkiri and Preah Vihear provinces.

To effectively protect an area, a conservation group must work with people at several levels of government, said David Mead, of Conservation International. The group has worked extensively in the Cardamom mountain range, and lessons learned there included working with the local and provincial officials. To stop poaching and forestry crime, everyone has to be working toward the same goal, he said.

“So it’s not just about six guys who are out on a patrol, two of them with guns,” he said.

The conservation teams exist because Cambodia is still a land without the rule of law, despite five years of peace. That’s slowly changing. The new forestry law passed by the National Assembly includes steep fines and jail time for people caught poaching or logging illegally.

Three new protected forests have also been established.

The region where the WCS program operates is near the new Mondolkiri protected forest, which at 429,438 hectares, is now the largest protected area in Cambodia. It borders on three wildlife sanctuaries in Cambodia and the Yok Don National Park in Vietnam, creating the largest single protected area in Southeast Asia, amounting to 1,009,938 hectares.

The Cardamoms protected area, in contrast, is 401,313 hectares. Two wildlife sanctuaries border the Cardamoms protected forest for a total matrix of some 988,813 hectares. The size of this protected area could increase significantly in the next year or two with government support, according to Hunter Weiler.

A third new designation, the Preah Vihear protected forest, encompasses 190,027 hectares.

“The challenge now will be to follow up the designations with effective protection and conservation measures,” Weiler said.

Poole said he wants to slowly build up the WCS patrol of the Samling concession area. He’s especially interested in the government’s plan for the logging companies, which are currently under a government-ordered moratorium. If, when and how the moratorium is lifted could have significant impact on the ranger program.

WCS wants to stay in the region for other reasons, Poole said. They also conduct biological research, monitor the local wildlife with a system of camera traps and work with the local Pnong minority to help them improve their lives.

Men Soriyun, the project coordinator for the WCS ranger team, said he knows that they don’t catch all of the illegal loggers. But they’ve stopped a few.

“A lot of the trees have been cut down, but if we keep working like this a lot of trees may be protected in the future. If we don’t do our best to preserve it then a lot of trees will disappear in the future,” he said.

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