Can Cambodia Protect Enough Forest for Ecotourism?

In the mid-19th Century, the French naturalist and explorer Henri Mouhot wrote about being holed up in a bamboo hut somewhere in central Cambodia, where he felt almost besieged by the wildlife closing in all around him. Rhinoceros, tigers, leopards, and banteng – wild jungle cattle – tried to invade his garden and “looked longingly” at his pigs. Elephants trumpeted in the distance, while snakes and tarantulas penetrated the abode itself.

Do places like this still exist in Cambodia? Can foreign visitors transplant themselves to the Cambodian wilds and experience raw nature as Mouhot and other early European explorers knew it?

An American-Australian couple, their two children and their Khmer staff have been working hard to not only give eco-tourists an experience comparable to Mouhot’s, but also to preserve an important tract of tropical forest in the northern Preah Vihear province in Cambodia, a country systematically laying waste to its environment.

While rhinos and tigers have been hunted to extinction in Cambodia (as well as in Laos and Vietnam), at Betreed Adventure, tourists are holed up in magnificent tree houses that put them safely above the banteng (an endangered wild forest ox) and clouded leopards that still call this 7,000-hectare plot of hilly forest home.

As the morning sun tinges the surrounding hills in the richest gold, its warm rays awaken pileated gibbons (listed by the IUCN as Endangered), who soon make the woods resound with their bizarre mixture of rapid-fire hoots and delirious barks as they brachiate across the jungle canopy. Macaques begin crashing around in the trees, barking deer do their morning rounds within clear view (a rarity in Cambodia), hornbills begin swooshing around, and the green peafowls call out and prance across their domains.

Motion-triggered camera traps have confirmed the presence of numerous other species, including pangolins, dholes – Asiatic wild dogs – palm civets, leopard cat, Sambar deer, silvered langur monkeys, wild pig, and others. Otters are said to inhabit a creek that flows through the forest, and the occasional (and highly unlikely) report of a tiger making a lonely promenade still surfaces from time to time. One thing is for certain—Betreed and the Phnom Tnout forest on which it stands—is a sign of hope in a country with one of the world’s worst deforestation rates.

Ben and Sharyn Davis have worked hard for this, throwing their time, energy, creativity, and all available resources to save a hilly expanse of little-known forest from the fate that has befallen much of Cambodia’s once-rich natural heritage. The Cambodian government has taken notice, and in a nod to their tireless efforts, the Ministry of Environment recently included Phnom Tnout as a key segment in a patchwork of forest blocks that now make up a new wildlife sanctuary spanning Preah Vihear province.

National parks and wildlife sanctuaries across Southeast Asia have been coming apart at the seams, suffering the hydra-headed scourges of illegal logging, illegal mining, poaching, encroachment, road-building, dam-building, downsizing, and outright de-gazetting. Some question whether protected areas in the tropics work at all.

I have heard conservationists bat around the idea of outright privatization for places like Virachey National Park in Ratanakiri province, and as far afield as Indonesia. I didn’t care much for idea when I first heard it, but it’s difficult not to be impressed by the results on display at Betreed that have come about as a result of private (and in this case foreign) investment and initiative combined with community support and government backing.

The truth is that most national parks—with the possible exception of Thailand’s very popular Khao Yai National Park—cannot pay for themselves with tourism revenue alone. Ecotourism in the tropics is largely seasonal, with the summer monsoon months being no good for trekking, and also many of the last great forests in Southeast Asia are located far from cities in the mountainous borderlands. Far-flung destinations like Cambodia’s Virachey National Park, Nam Et-Phou Louey in Laos, and Sumatra’s Hadabuan Hills take considerable time and effort to reach, with result being that only a small contingent of hardy, often niche tourists finally trickling in for a visit. Tourism revenue is therefore limited in places such as these, and the lack of revenue often translates into a lack of political will to properly protect these still-magnificent places. What, then, is the answer?

People like the Davises, perhaps. Ben scouted out the area in 2011 during a reconnaissance with rangers from the Ministry of Environment. The following year, he began lobbying the Forestry Administration—the branch of government actually in charge of this land— in an effort to acquire some sort of protected status for this magical and forgotten corner of the kingdom.

As Sharyn explained it in an email: “we were looking to have it zoned as Community Forest … make a contract with the local community of Ta Bos Village here and work through that mechanism to protect the area. Community Forest allows sustainable use of forest and some level of protection. There should be no logging or poaching of wildlife (especially anything endangered). The CF was approved by the provincial level at January 2015 however it stalled after that at the national level. Early 2017, the government zoned the land within a biodiversity corridor which was to be managed by the Ministry of Environment. At about the same time, they also switched all the protected lands over to the MOE where previously MAFF were responsible for some areas.”

After a series of MOUs were signed and stamped, Phnom Tnout was granted Community Forest status, and soon after that it became part of what is now a 42,000-hectare protected area called the Phnom Tnout-Phnom Pnouk Wildlife Sanctuary. Local Ta Bos community members are employed as jungle guides, cooks, and construction workers. The whole ecotourism site is run off solar power and water comes from a natural spring in the mountains. There is a zipline, an ancient Angkor-era temple buried in the forest, and enough wildlife to keep a naturalist occupied for weeks. Dinner is served in the main house.

When I visited, Sharyn’s Burmese family happened to be there, and her mother cooked some of the most exquisite cuisine in all of my travels; but even if her family is not in town both Western and Asian dishes are on the menu.

Can Betreed Adventures be a model for other “protected areas” in the region? The term “protected areas” needs to be put in quotations because, whether in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar or Indonesia, most receive woefully insufficient protection. Rangers are needed to apprehend poachers and loggers and conduct snare sweeps. To this end the Cambodian government has been surprisingly supportive in this case. MOE rangers have been deployed to Phnom Tnout, and there is talk of a permanent ranger team being based there to help protect the entire sanctuary. What we might be looking at is a wonderful example of private/government cooperation to protect the Kingdom’s natural heritage.

Ben Davis is a rugged, hands-on guy who lays roads, builds lodges, and chases poachers off Phnom Tnout by himself, and I recall him saying: “There’s only two guys from the village who won’t run from me, and I’m a little bit scared of them too.” The rangers will soon—if they are not already—assist dealing with poachers, which can be deadly work in Cambodia. But for the moment the future of Phnom Tnout and the surrounding area seems brighter than ever before, and much of it boils down to the Davis’s determination. Are there other Ben and Sharyns out there, willing and ready to pour their hearts into the last forests in Cambodia and Southeast Asia? They could be the last great hope for the region’s wildlife.

Henri Mouhot didn’t give the precise location of his besieged hut, but it could have very well been in Preah Vihear province, not far from Phnom Tnout. In 2017—in the Age of Anthropocene where the face of the Earth is rapidly being transformed by man—Betreed Adventures might be as close as one can get to knowing what it means to have wildlife closing in all around them, to waking up in the midst of a jungle panorama, to sip coffee within earshot of gibbons. And when tourists visit, they help ensure that these hills remained cloaked in jungle and alive with wildlife well into the future.

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Betreed Adventures is located at Phnom Tnout, Songkom Thmey District, Preah Vihear Province, Cambodia.

Gregory McCann is the Project Coordinator for Habitat ID and the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit