Not so long ago, great herds of animals thundered across the northern and eastern plains of Cambodia, raising such clouds of dust that biologist Charles Wharton called Cambodia “one of the great gamelands of the world.”
What was once a great gameland suffered years of war and civil strife, and even though peace has come to Cambodia, poachers continue to take a murderous toll on the region’s wild animals, conservationists say.
A new report from the World Wildlife Fund has designated the Central Indochina Dry Forest—of which the eastern and northern plains of Cambodia are a part—as one of the 238 highest-priority conservation areas in the world.
The 53,000-square-km region is one of three in Cambodia, along with the Cardamom Mountain range and the Mekong River and its floodlands, to earn special status for the diversity of animals that roam the areas as well as the plants that thrive in them.
“Cambodians can feel very proud of the biodiversity of the country,” said Dale Withington, manager of the WWF Cambodia Conservation Program. “The rest of the world recognizes the importance of this biodiversity and is working in many different ways to help Cambodian conservation and sustainable development efforts.”
A wide range of animals, some of them threatened with extinction, live in the priority conservation areas in Cambodia: Banteng, wild water buffalo, Siamese crocodile, Indochina tigers, Asian elephants, Pileated gibbon, leopards, cranes, storks and vultures.
The report warns that although these animals still exist in the regions, conservationists need to move quickly to save them from extinction. The kouprey, a jungle ox, may already be extinct, and other species have seen their populations decline rapidly in recent years.
During the dry season, animals in the northern and eastern plains tend to retreat to semi-evergreen forests at the edge of dry forests. Logging companies generally work in the semi-evergreen forests because the trees are more valuable there, said Joe Walston, technical advisor for the Wildlife Conservation Society office in Phnom Penh.
Withington said it’s possible for loggers to continue operations in the priority areas if they do so carefully, using sustainable practices. Habitats for the animals must be preserved, and a new wildlife law soon to be signed by the Council of Ministers must be enforced to prevent poaching.
The northern and eastern plains have never seen large human settlements because there’s not enough water available, said Seng Teak, coordinator of the WWF program in the eastern plains dry forest.
The WWF designation was several years in the making and marks an important step toward conservation in the region, said Mark Baltzer, a WWF official.