NGO Helps Rangers Get the Upper Hand
bokor mountain, Kampot province – At dawn, Nhem Ty is the first ranger out of his hammock and down the trail. While others are climbing out of their mosquito nets and brushing land leeches off their boots, the former soldier is hacking at thick underbrush, clearing the way for the morning patrol.
Fifteen kilometers into the jungle, there are no signs of foreign tourists or Cambodians on weekend excursions. Here, it is either poachers or illegal loggers—or the park rangers who are looking for them.
A few months ago, scarce funding meant that Huch Hoeurn and other rangers spent a limited amount of time in the forest. But a training program and new equipment have given them the resources they need to better protect the park.
“Now, we can be more active in cracking down on illegal loggers and poachers,” Huch Hoeurn says.
On this day, the second of their patrol of the southern end of Bokor National Park, the early morning sun dries the ground after a night of rain. Before midnight, the faint sounds of karaoke had been heard coming from Kampot town. Now, cicadas in the trees buzz loudly.
Through the morning, four fellow rangers follow Nhem Ty and his machete on a faintly marked trail, up and down steep hills. Nhem Ty may not be tall, his fellow rangers say, but he moves fast in the forest.
After several hours of steady hiking, they pass a clearing filled with makeshift bamboo beds and shelters. It is an abandoned poacher’s camp, the second the patrol has seen since starting out the morning before.
They walk on, encountering a large tree a short while later that had been cut and felled across the trail. One ranger photographs it from several angles with a digital camera. Another ranger marks the spot with a handheld Global Positioning System.
After lunch of rice and salted beef, rangers set up an automatic camera. Rangers hope the motion-sensitive “camera trap” will capture wildlife and poachers on film.
In the late afternoon, at the junction of a trail and logging road, they rest on top of illegally cut trees, set together in neat rows. This is the same spot where patrolling rangers confiscated a chainsaw and arrested two loggers in December.
Now in less dense forest, Nhem Ty doesn’t need his machete. Instead he wields an AK-47, a precaution against the heavily armed loggers who have menaced Bokor in recent years.
The rest of the team follows quietly, down the mountain toward the ranger substation near the Tuk Chhou waterfalls.
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Just a few years ago, illegal loggers in Bokor were fearless, even aggressive. They would often fire warning shots as park rangers approached. Many were hired by local businessmen, with the backing of the military and provincial police.
Nationwide, illegal logging went almost unchecked. A 1998 World Bank report predicted that Cambodia’s forests would be depleted by 2003.
In Bokor, a study done by a European Commission-funded program in December 1997 found freshly bulldozed roads had given illegal loggers access to about 80 percent of the park.
A few months later, the same project, the Support Program to the Environmental Sector in Cambodia, began sending park rangers on regular patrols through the 140,000 hectare park. On motorcycle, they could move easily through the sprawling park, and logging activity dropped.
But when the program’s money ran out later that year, rangers could no longer buy petrol for their motorbikes. Patrols were drastically scaled back, and rangers generally only went into the forest when they heard of illegal logging, which increased again.
But in July, a US-based environmental group, WildAid, announced a program to fund and train Bokor National Park rangers.
For two weeks in December, WildAid officials and agents from the US Fish and Wildlife Service schooled rangers on how to read a map and a GPS system, how to safely arrest and question poaching and logging suspects, how to investigate a crime and how to use a gun. They gave the rangers uniforms, boots and camping supplies. They built a new ranger substation and boosted monthly salaries to 50,000 riel (about $12.80).
All told, WildAid will spend $50,000 this year. They will evaluate their commitment to the park at the end of the year.
On practice patrols after the December course, teams of rangers and trainers found poachers and illegal loggers everywhere they went. They confiscated deer meat and gibbon. They took chainsaws away from loggers and dismantled poacher’s camps. They even came across people building boats inside the park.
“Lack of patrols is the main reason for poaching,” WildAid co-director Steven Galster said.
Now, with rangers regularly patrolling by foot, illegal activity is dropping again. Teams of four or five rangers spend about two weeks patrolling the park every month. Four teams are based in the southern end of the park. One team is stationed in the Prich Nhil area, where trees have recently been illegally logged.
In January and February, 3000 animal snares and 10 chainsaws were destroyed. Twenty-three poachers and loggers were brought to ranger stations and asked to sign a contract promising not to break forest laws again.
“There’s nothing much else we can do at the moment,” WildAid coordinator Tim Redford says. “But we’ve got to start somewhere. Repeat offenders will be turned over to the court. Then they can decide what to do.”
He has reason to believe the program will work. He points one by one to pictures of poachers and loggers caught by a camera trap in Thailand’s Khao Yai National Park, where WildAid has a similar program for training rangers.
“Busted…busted…busted,” he says.
Loggers can still be fearless and armed, but now they are just as likely to drop everything and run when barking dogs warn them of approaching rangers.
“We are not afraid because we are there to serve the nation, not destroy it,” ranger Nao Sen says. “There have been no clashes because they dare not oppose us.”
Government officials have offered their public support for wildlife enforcement in Bokor. The governors and local police chiefs in Kampot, Koh Kong, Kompong Speu provinces and Kompong Som town have signed a letter authorizing rangers to make arrests in areas where province and park boundaries overlap.
Now, if a logger claims they are protected by high-ranking officials, rangers merely have to show them a copy of the letter, which includes the stamped seals of each province.
“It is easier now than before to get logging to stop,” says Chey Yuthearith, the chief of the park. “Now the government is telling people to stop cutting trees.”
Ranger Ros Chandara, a former RCAF soldier, says that loggers have started to cut trees at night, in order to avoid park rangers.
“So now we crack down on them at night,” he says.
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With its cool mist and expansive view of jungle and sea, Bokor Mountain has been a tourist destination since the French colonial days.
The resort on top of the mountain was founded by the French and built by prisoners and coolie laborers in 1922. Abandoned during the Lon Nol regime, it became a ghost town through the years of civil war.
The shells of buildings that once held an elegant hotel, Catholic church, wat, casino, hospital, post office and the villa complex of then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk now sit empty and exposed to the fog that often swirls around the mountain. The buildings themselves have become something of a tourist attraction to foreign tourists.
But the forest below is also of unique interest. Very few biodiversity studies have been done of the park, but it’s known that tigers, elephants, leopard, deer, gaur and gibbons live there. The forest ecosystem can vary with elevation, from jungle to mixed deciduous to an almost alpine. The 1997 European Commission report called it the wettest place in Southeast Asia.
Because of its nearly pristine beauty and its rich and sometimes rare plant or animal life, environmentalists have suggested that Bokor, like the Angkor temples, be named a World Heritage site by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Such a designation could bring further funding from conservation groups. Greater international recognition could mean more revenue for the park from tourists or scientists who want to study the unique plant and wildlife.
In 1993, a decree signed by King Sihanouk made Bokor one of the largest national parks in the country. Before Cambodia gained independence in 1953, the French had included the southwestern slope of Bokor mountain as one of its 170 forest reserves.
But the current park’s boundaries are much larger, spreading north from Kampot town into northern Kampot province, as well as into Kompong Som, and Kompong Speu and Koh Kong provinces. It is so large that even with regular patrolling, rangers are still only covering a small part of the park.
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Before becoming a park ranger, Nhem Ty was himself a poacher.
“For many years, I collected yellow vine and rattan in this forest,” he says.
Like many villagers who live near the park’s boundaries, Nhem Ty came into the forest to cut plants to sell at local markets. Most of the villagers are very poor and use what they gather to buy food, Redford says. But rangers still try to educate them about wildlife regulations.
On the first day of the patrol, just as the clouds release a hard afternoon rain, they meet one of the villagers.
Chorm Sim, a thin and frightened man, is carrying only a large knife and a small bag with five pieces of illegally cut aloewood inside. Several leeches are attached to his bloody feet, but he ignores them as he answers the rangers questions.
“I have never used snares to catch wild animals,” he says. “I only came to look for aloewood just this one time.”
The aloewood is confiscated, Chorm Sim’s picture is taken and his name is written down. Rangers give him a warning, and he promises not to cut aloewood again.
“He is poor,” says Heng Kimchhay, a wildlife specialist at the Ministry of Environment, as Chorm Sim continues down the trail, looking tentatively over his shoulder. “But we cannot give him a job now.”
Giving loggers and poachers jobs enforcing wildlife has gained popularity in Cambodia. They know the forest, and most would rather be enforcing the law rather than breaking it, Redford says.
But there are still plenty of poachers looking for high-priced tiger skins or elephant ivory. A tiger skin can fetch hundreds of dollars on the black market, while elephant tusks can bring in about $400 per kilogram.
Only a few tigers remain in Bokor, botanist David Ashwell says. They have been hunted heavily in recent years.
But if the tiger population can be brought back, then there is hope for the health of the forest. If there are tigers in Bokor, Redford says, then there are plenty of prey. If there is prey, then there is habitat.
“I used to see footprints of tigers,” says Nhem Ty. “And I saw a lot of elephants in this area in the 1980s. But now I don’t know where they go.”
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The last part of the patrol is a steep descent toward Tuk Chhou substation.
Still inside the park’s boundary, the rangers pass from forest to a small durian farm. This is one of several farms where villagers have cleared trees and underbrush on the edge of the park to grow cash crops, such as pineapple or rambuttan. For now, rangers allow it to exist, concentrating instead on preventing other villagers from carving out more farms.
“There are a lot of people coming into the park,” says Galster. “You can literally count them as they enter in through the trails. It is an uphill battle.”
The rangers file single-file to a road, then cross a small bridge. Two men pass by on bicycle, loaded with bamboo. Rangers do not stop them, explaining that cutting bamboo in the park is one of the few sustainable forest products that can be removed from the park.
Down the road, in a small, wooden building, near the cool, fast-moving water that is a favorite weekend attraction for Cambodians, waits another team of rangers. At the substation, they rest, write reports and prepare for their next patrol.