A Cambodia-based conservationist recently described Virachey National Park (VNP) as a place littered with the bodies of NGOs that tried to save it. Even the mighty World Bank is counted among the casualties. When the Bank pulled out in 2008, the wildlife conservation groups grabbed some of their dead and wounded from the forests and hopped on the last helicopters out.
Miraculously, VNP still exists, even if it has had some of its luxurious green shaven from it—but which park in Southeast Asia has not suffered from logging, poaching, and encroachment? The question is whether VNP is still worth fighting for and if so, who will undertake this daunting task? After all, there are logging syndicates and rubber planters attacking from inside Cambodia, Vietnamese poachers and loggers infiltrating from the east, and Laotian hunters penetrating from the north.
Traditional methods of conservation in which large, well-established NGOs work closely with park authorities may no longer be the most effective way to manage parks in the tropics. Could the future of conservation be something different? Perhaps motley crews of motivated individuals who contribute in whatever way they can is the future of conservation in places like VNP.
Admittedly, I myself receive funding from a conservation group that I co-founded, Habitat ID. This relatively new, very small, and little-known organization has worked hard to raise funds to buy camera-traps to search for wildlife in VNP, as well as in Thailand. However, only a fraction of what we have accomplished would have been possible without the help of a collection of concerned individuals, most of whom I met via online social networking: a German physician who generously supplied five cameras and piles of lithium batteries and memory cards and who trekked VNP twice; an American bird ace and his wife, who happens to be a community ecotourism expert; a linguist-outdoorsman who came through with a camera trap and hefted a very heavy pack on our most recent trek; a climate change expert who visited the park in 2014 and donated several cameras and lots of equipment to the Virachey cause; two brothers who are MS students in upstate New York universities who took a long flight to Cambodia, bringing cameras to set up in the far-off Yak Yeuk grasslands (not to be confused with the popular Veal Thom grasslands).
A wildlife survey is currently underway in the remotest corners of VNP, where cameras have never been deployed, and it is happening because there are unaffiliated people who care and wish to do something about VNP. In just one year our cameras have snapped black bears, sun bears, clouded leopards, golden cats, leopard cats, dhole, gaur, douc langurs, stump-tailed macaques (the first ever recorded in VNP), and many other animals. We have found elephant wallowing holes, and cameras are now waiting for them to take a roll in the mud. On our recent 13-day trek to the Lao border, gibbons were heard singing every day, and sightings of Great Hornbills, Wreathed Hornbills, and Oriental Pied Hornbills were daily experiences. Our group discovered a tree filled with rare Northern Brown Hornbills and Gray-shanked douc langurs that were feeding together and that took off screeching upon our arrival. We also found and collected the feces of what Brao and Kavet highlanders claim is from “Yai Yai” or the “Tek Tek”—two variations of the “tropical yeti,” Cambodia’s version of Sumatra’s Orang Pendak. We put a camera there too. The New York brothers espied a pack of 10 endangered dhole out in the open on their 12-day trek to Yak Yeuk and beyond, found another elephant wallow, and heard loads of gibbons and hornbills—key indicators of a healthy forest.
What this means is that in the eight years since the NGOs and the World Bank left VNP to fend for itself, wildlife has hung on. The park is getting hammered along the Vietnamese border and in Siem Pang district, but there is a huge core area, including the Yak Yeuk grasslands, the region north of the Veal Thom grasslands and a 30-km stretch of remote border mountains. These mountains are a pantheon of powerful gods to the tribal people of the Sesan River area, and many of them fear the malevolent spirits enough to avoid hunting or logging the area. And what’s more, directly north of the sacred Haling-Halang massif, where we stood on the border and looked out into Laos, is another “protected area” known as Nam Ghong PPA. Nam Ghong PPA is approximately 100,000 hectares and its location, abutting VNP, serves as an uninterrupted wildlife corridor. And if that weren’t enough, there is also the Voen Sai-Siem Pang Protected Forest, an area that gives VNP an additional 55,000 hectares of forest buffer (though these places also suffer from logging).
The point of the camera trap project is to prove that the park is still worth saving. I think we have already succeeded in that; moreover, in the coming months the cameras will be checked in their new locations and new and stunning images will be revealed. Critics will say that problems plagued VNP in the past and millions of dollars were wasted on conservation efforts there. But the mistakes of the past must not determine the future of VNP—we cannot lose hope. With its vast golden upland savannahs and enchanted mountain forests, still thick with huge trees that seem like they could reach out and grab you, VNP is unique not only for Cambodia but for all of Southeast Asia. It is Cambodia’s Grand Canyon, its Yellowstone, its Kruger. Virachey is the supreme example of the country’s natural heritage, struggling against big odds to survive. The fight for its future must continue.
And for that we will need everyone—physicians, birders, ecotourists, anthropologists, amateur naturalists like myself, and indeed the wildlife NGOs, in whatever capacity they can muster. VNP’s new enthusiastic director, Prin Sambo, is fighting hard for the park, as well as VNP deputy director of protection Nhuy Vuykeo and many other VNP staffers. The time for a fresh start is now.
Gregory McCann is the field coordinator for Habitat ID, an assistant professor at Chang Gung University in Taiwan, and the author of “Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor.”