Responding to worries over the apparent secrecy surrounding a project in Cambodia’s largest wildlife sanctuary, the project’s US backer said late last month that his team is aiming to create a new model for protecting animals and forests.
The project, co-funded by US lawyer David Casselman and garment factory owner Sok Hong, son of Sokimex mogul Sok Kong, will turn 2,000 hectares of the Kulen-Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary into an observation area, where tourists will pay to see rescued animals, Casselman said. The money from the project will be used to protect the remaining 400,000 hectares, called the conservation area.
“We are planning to create a permanent sanctuary, which will be self funded, to preserve both the habitat and the animals of this region,” Casselman wrote in an e-mail on May 30.
“Judging from what we have done so far, you must agree we are on a very positive course,” he said.
But the scant information available about the project, which was approved by Environment Minister Mok Mareth in March, makes it difficult to judge its merits, according to several local experts.
“We are puzzled by the secrecy of all of this,” said Suwanna Gauntlett, country director for WildAid. “WildAid and the Forestry Administration are the largest source of seized wildlife in Cambodia. Why would we not be consulted?”
Other representatives of major conservation organizations also said they were not consulted or informed about the project in Kulen-Promtep, which is located in parts of Preah Vihear, Oddar Meanchey and Siem Reap provinces.
Alex Diment, an environmental adviser for AUSTCARE, a demining and development organization, said neither he nor the Ministry of Environment and Forestry Administration officials he works with in Oddar Meanchey had ever heard of the project before it was publicized in local media last month.
He said that, according to what he saw on the project’s Web site, the undertaking seemed “a bizarre project.”
In a series of e-mails, Casselman emphasized that details were not finalized. Consultations with locals and thorough environmental assessments will take place later, he wrote.
The project will accept animals for exhibition “from a variety of sources, including private homes, zoos and translocated animals from other areas where they have been injured or are a public nuisance,” Casselman wrote.
Diment worried that to obtain the animals described on the project’s Web site—including elephants and wild cats—project organizers “would have to pay for the animals either directly or indirectly [by paying ‘enforcement’ staff], and this would therefore drive poaching and hunting both in Kulen Promtep and elsewhere.”
Casselman wrote that the project includes a substantial budget for enforcement staff, and that the team was considering using solar-powered electric fencing to secure the perimeter of the conservation area. The budget for the first five years is $4.3 million.
The 20,000 locals estimated to live within the sanctuary had not yet been consulted about the project, Casselman said, but they would be before any changes were made to the sanctuary.
“It is our hope to change the desperation of local people into hope and opportunity,” he wrote. According to the project agreement, it will employ 100 to 500 Cambodians.
Casselman emphasized that all steps would be undertaken with the cooperation of locals and the government, especially the Environment Ministry.
Ministry of Environment officials in Oddar Meanchey and Siem Reap provinces, and government officials in Preah Vihear province, the three provinces that share the sanctuary, said they were not informed or consulted about the project. The Environment Ministry Undersecretary of State Prach Sun also said he knew nothing about the project.
Minister Mok Mareth has repeatedly refused to comment on this and other development proposals within protected areas. He refused to talk to a reporter when approached May 31.
“I did not sell anything,” he said, in response to a request for a meeting.
Though he stressed the minister’s and other officials’ commitment to the project, Casselman said the details of who is aware of and working on the Kulen-Promtep project were not as significant as the project’s goals.
“We hope to create a model that will be followed around the world,” he wrote. “For this reason, the people involved are really not what is important. It is what we do that matters.”