In a personal essay printed sometime in the 1970s, Cambodia’s former Agriculture Ministry Director-General Ho Tong Peng, an avid hunter of big game, wrote of his admiration for the first and only Indian Bison he shot.
“Throughout the world, few people (foreign or even natives of the Khmer nation) have had the chance to see a gaur dead or alive, the greatest and proudest representative of the bovine race living wild in the Khmer Republic,” Ho Tong Peng wrote of the one-ton beast, known in Khmer as a “kting,” which he, his brother and a nephew killed on a hunting expedition in Battambang province during the 1961 Khmer New Year.
Touted to hunting tourists by the Cambodian government in the 1960s as exquisite trophies, gaur bulls are among the largest of the wild cattle species, have coarse black fur, shoulders that grow to over 1.8 meters, blue eyes, white “stocking” feet and curving horns.
From the Indian sub-continent to the bottom of the Malay peninsula, the total population is estimated to have declined by 70 percent in the last three generations and only a few hundred have survived in Cambodia, according to the World Conservation Union.
As few as 13,000 may remain on the planet.
But the gaur trophy may yet draw tourists to Cambodia again.
After more than four years of discussions with the Spanish company NSOK Safaris, which operates two luxury hunting resorts in Africa, the Ministry of Agriculture has now drawn the boundaries for a new protected area for big game hunting in Ratanakkiri province’s O’Yadaw district. And the sparse human populations of the district are likely to benefit from the sprawling hunting preserve planned for over 100,000 hectares, officials said Monday.
Plans announced for the hunting reserve in 2007 by the Spanish company NSOK Safaris, which aims to allow rich vacationers to cull the province’s dwindling gaur population, drew criticism from conservationists despite the company’s stated intention to help preserve the environment.
The gaur population should be encouraged to increase, rather than sold off as trophies, according to WWF.
However, those planning the reserve and government officials say the gaur can withstand a controlled offtake and that benefits for the local economy in O’Yadaw far outweigh the costs.
Speaking on behalf of NSOK Safaris, Enrique Maestre said Monday that his company would not discuss any of the project’s details but that he was confident local residents would not suffer as a result of it.
“I can advance you that nobody will be displaced, on the contrary [it] will be extremely profitable for the local communities, and that several studies have been carried on the field for more than 4 years,” he wrote in an e-mail from Madrid.
Citing 2005 data from the defunct government reform program Seila, Dany Chheang, deputy director of wildlife protection at the Agriculture Ministry, said Monday that inside the preserve area there are five villages, home to 303 families comprised of 1,403 people.
If the hunting project goes ahead, the Spanish company is likely to provide healthcare, schools and roads and to offer employment to the people living on the project grounds, he said.
“At the first stage, the company will provide job opportunities for the locals as tour guides and rangers,” he said. “If the locals have elephants, it would be best for the tourists to hire them out,” he added.
In a 2007 article he co-authored for the ministry’s Forest and Wildlife Magazine on the potential for game hunting, Dany Chheang said research had showed that the gaur species population was stable but vulnerable.
“Research on wild cattle and mammals in O’Yadaw district…found that the wildlife component and its structure are entirely good but that the carrying capacity is low,” he wrote.
An organism’s carrying capacity is the maximum population that can be supported by its environment.
“If proper use of wildlife resources is made, local people, the national economy and conservation would benefit by between $7 and $10 million per year,” the authors concluded.
Dork Sor, acting governor of O’Yadaw district, said Monday he had heard little about the hunting project since first learning of it two years ago.
“If it comes true, the villagers would be happy and the area would be better developed and they will receive this benefit,” he said.
Pen Bonnar, provincial coordinator for the rights group Adhoc, said he too supported the project, because controlled hunting of gaur would help end poaching, which isn’t carried out by local people.
“I think that it is a good strategy to protect the forest and wildlife,” he said.
“Local people cannot kill the gaur because they don’t have the guns,” he said. “The ones who usually kill gaur are the police and soldiers,” he added.
(Additional reporting by Douglas Gillison)