On a January late afternoon I was sitting in a small jungle clearing about 500 meters over the Cambodian border in Laos, utterly lost in a lost world. It was almost completely silent save for the melodious warble of an unseen bird. There is almost nothing which demarcates the international border between Cambodia and Laos along the wild mountains in Virachey National Park save the occasional lone cement post on some of the high peaks that were helicoptered up about 15 years ago. But all of this is about to radically change.
Now only an empty pack of Lao cigarettes dangled from a dead tree branch, a hunter’s or policeman’s way of letting Cambodians who might have strayed too far that this was Lao territory. I sat there with my barang (foreigner) friend and my ethnic Brao friend for over two hours as we waited for the rest of our party to find the way to our destination: Phnom Haling-Halang, one of the highest border mountains and one that actually has a cement post on its peak.
It took us five days to reach this lonely Lao prairie, a trek that began at the Sesan River in Ratanakiri province in northeast Cambodia. It is by no means easy to find a place in Indochina where one can walk for five days entirely through forest and grasslands without encountering a single road or vehicle. Along the way we enjoyed the mournful morning wails of Northern Buff-cheeked gibbons and the growls and heavy swooshes of various hornbills. We found scratch marks from sun bear and piles of fresh Asian elephant dung.
Later we would fetch a dozen motion-triggered camera traps that we had set up on and around Phnom Haling-Halang. They would reveal clouded leopard, marbled cat, golden cat, leopard cat, binturong, Asian small-clawed otter, and many more species, including Asian elephant (the first time they have been camera-trapped in over a decade in Virachey National Park). Our cameras also photographed armed poachers, almost certainly Vietnamese who had crossed over the border from Attapeu province in southern Laos. Despite years of conservation neglect and the threat from poachers, this section of Virachey remained enchanting.
The area of Virachey along the border with Laos remains to this day completely trackless, and for this reason it is the most difficult to access and least disturbed area of the 3, 325 sq. km park. It is, as it has always been, the secret heart of Virachey, a place so far away and so poorly researched that rumors of a tropical Yeti—known to the ethnic Brao and Kavet people as the Tek Tek— have persisted until now (US forces as well as Vietnamese combatants reported seeing and even firing on them in the area during the war).
Now a new border road is to be bulldozed through Virachey, one that will hug the Lao border and slice right through this roadless wilderness. Construction has started in Siem Pang district of Stung Treng province (about half of Virachey is in Stung Treng and the other half in Ratanakiri province) but has yet to reach the national park itself. Progress on the road has been retarded by the Lao military, which has crossed over into Cambodia and dug trenches, holding up construction and claiming that the planned road will pass through Lao territory. It is entirely possible that armed conflict will break out with shots fired over what is still a No-man’s Land. What will happen to Virachey’s wildlife when the road finally tears through this secret forest? Cambodia’s track record is not encouraging, and most likely the road’s completion will sound the death knell for the rare species we have camera-trapped.
Why is the road being built? Cambodian friends say it’s for “national security” and “for the next generation.” Cambodia’s military engineers are making this road (and there are whispers of Chinese funding), and the fact is that once “national security” is held up as the reason, it is just about impossible to stop it. However, I’ve been over to the other side of the border in Laos several times. The views are breathtaking, with tens of kilometers of forest spreading out in every direction.
Does the Cambodian military fear incursions by Lao farmers searching for wild fruit? Is this all about stopping foreign loggers and poachers from sneaking over and stealing from the Kingdom? These answers seem highly dubious, as the government has invested next to nothing over the years on ranger patrols to stop these illegal activities. Could the road be an excuse to liquidate Virachey for all of its remaining timber, earn some kickbacks from construction costs, and earn some extra cash on the side selling off snared wildlife and land parcels along the road (this would also serve the interest of national security, as populating an unpopulated region cements Cambodia’s territorial claims)?
These questions make me recall a quote from science writer David Quammen: “De-gazetting. It’s a word with which we should acquaint ourselves; it’s a word, unfortunately, of the future. How so? Because other efforts to de-gazette national parks are likely to arise soon, as we citizens of various countries find our short-term appetites more compelling than our long-term ideals.”
De-gazetting. That’s one of the most depressing words an environmental conservationist can hear. But there’s another word that sinks the soul too: defaunation. The Vietnamese army has built many similar roads in the Annamite Mountains that separate Laos and Vietnam, and the results have been catastrophic for wildlife, with vast areas of upland Vietnamese territory losing virtually all of its vertebrate wildlife thanks to ease of access to once inaccessible areas—exactly the same thing that will soon happen to Virachey National Park. In fact, road building through protected areas is happening in many places throughout Southeast Asia, and WWF warns that these new roads threaten tigers with extinction throughout their range in Asia.
The writing is on the wall, and when this road is completed we can say goodbye to the clouded leopards, the golden cats, the douc langurs, the gibbons, the gaur, the dhole and all the rest—they will be snared and/or shot and bundled up and secreted off to the Vietnamese border, a silent funeral procession for the beautiful forest denizens of one of the Indochina’s last great storehouses of biodiversity.
Out of sight, out of mind. That’s how many feel, both local Cambodians and people who come from places far away. But whether we know it or not, whether we visit places like Virachey or not, we need them. Set aside things like ecosystem services and how these parks serve as carbon sinks, sources of fresh air and water, etc. We need them for our minds to escape to. Trackless wildernesses represent endless possibilities, hidden secrets, animals known and unknown, rivers, valleys and waterfalls hidden away and out of sight, home to who knows what. Even if we don’t visit them, places like Virachey leave open a space in our minds for curiosity and the possibility that maybe, way, way back in the mountains, there might still be a tiger or two roaring in the night, there might still be a herd of elephants pounding around, there might even be a Tek Tek stalking its prey. So long as the landscape exists, the possibility exists, even if only in our minds. And we need those possibilities now more than ever as wild places get diced up by roads and shrink and disappear forever, as we get sucked into our mobile devices, unaware of what was and what is being lost in what remains of our natural world.
Cambodia is about to lose its largest and most beautiful national park, though that’s not how they’ll put it. For the time being the focus will be on the conflicts with the Lao army in Siem Pang. But they have decided that they need this road and it is being built. Expect more clashes with the Lao army as the road pushes on, and perhaps even bloodshed. And it would have been so easy to just let the forest and the animals be as they have always been and remain today, to hang an empty pack of Lao cigarettes in the middle of the wilderness as a kind reminder that this is the border. The wildlife could have its wilderness, ecotourists could have their treks, society could have its fresh and water, and there would be no military conflict. But humans have a hard time just letting things be. What can we do about it? Nothing, but you can try to see it before it’s gone. That’s the state of nature in Cambodia, Southeast Asia, and most of the tropics today: see it while you can, because it won’t be around for long.