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Cambodia: Last Hope for Indochina, or on its Last Breath?
This is the third installment of the author's “Indochina in the Anthropocene” series, which narrates the environmental crisis in Southeast Asia. Check out the other stories in this series:
Cambodia, which contains within its borders some of Southeast Asia’s most important virgin forest, is under attack. Nowhere is that illustrated more dishearteningly than the Phnom Tnout district in the northern part of the country, where an American-Australian couple run an ecotourism outpost called Betreed Adventures
But ecotourism, it seems, can’t satisfy everyone quickly enough. Local villagers living on the outskirts of the Phnom Tnout forest began petitioning to have Ben and Sharyn Davis, the couple who run Betreed, and their family evicted to enable the locals to cut the forest down to plant more crops. The petition-gathering back in April began to look a bit rowdy, with tensions beginning to spill over, and things have got progressively worse in the months since.
I recently corresponded with Ben Davis, who described the current situation as “pretty much in an open war with the loggers and poachers. We got chased by loggers last week. Ran us nearly a mile before they caught up and ended up hurling their knives and axes at us. Haven't been that worried in a long time.” As someone who thoroughly enjoyed the natural tranquility of Phnom Tnout and their hospitality, this comes as a shock, even to a semi-jaded environmentalist.
I also voiced some hope for another Cambodian national park—Virachey— based on promising early camera trap data that we got back earlier this year. However, questions remain about the “border belt” road that will hug the Lao border and slice right through the most pristine area of the park. We also found ample evidence of Vietnamese logging operations inside the park boundaries, and we encountered local loggers and poachers as well. What does the future really hold for this place?
Elsewhere in northeast Cambodia, in Mondulkiri and Kratie provinces, it has recently come to light that cyanide is the cause of recent mass illnesses in these far-flung districts, most likely from illegal mining. Poachers and loggers are now actively stealing and destroying wildlife camera traps in the northeast, and although not mentioned in the linked article, we had seven stolen in Virachey as well (camera trap theft is said to be so rife in Vietnam that researchers in many protected areas don’t even bother deploying them anymore). The once-dusty and rugged “highway of death” that connected Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri is no more, tamed forever now by pavement and in the process of being lined with oil palm plantations.
Namlear Wildlife Sanctuary on the Vietnamese border in Mondulkiri—a protected area centered around a mountain that is sacred to the indigenous Pnong people—is being stripped bare by loggers. A massive, Mekong-killing hydroelectric dam will probably go up at Sambor in Kratie province, and the Chinese have their sights set on pleasant little Kampot.
Much has been written about the Chinese takeover in Sihanoukville, with the Guardian throwing down the gauntlet and proclaiming “No Cambodia Left.” Ream National Park, also situated on the coast, will soon see development projects springing up and because of this lose forest cover. Siamese rosewood is now so difficult to find in the wild, and so intensely sought after by China, that loggers have begun brazenly poaching rosewood trees from Angkor Wat Park in the shadows of the fabulous ancient temples.
Every year dozens of Cambodian loggers enter Thailand to poach rosewood from the last great stands in Thailand, and many are killed as they attempt to shake the Thai military police. Even after gaining protected status as well as enjoying a financial boost from the United States, Prey Lang Forest continues to suffer from extensive illegal logging operations.
There are so many environmental problems taking place in Cambodia that it can be called ground zero for the natural world in the Anthropocene Era. But that doesn’t mean that some are not fighting hard to protect what remains, with Wildlife Alliance taking on the herculean task of patrolling the Cardamom Mountain range by air and land, and local police making illegal wildlife busts as well, time and again. But it’s all just a conservation drop in an ocean of predatory anthropogenic activity in Cambodia and beyond.
Once again, history can provide illuminating perspective. In the 1960s, tigers and elephants were so abundant that they harassed Dutch naturalist Hakon Skafte and his son during a trek in the Cardamom Mountains, scenes of which he describes picturesquely in his book Rhino Country. I was told that a road punched through the Cardamom Mountains in the late 1990s resulted in the loss of 27 tigers (that they know of); tigers are extinct in Cambodia today.
Reaching back into the more distant past, in the 1860s Henry Mouhot, while passing through Cambodia on his way to Laos, shot a leopard as it readied to pounce on two of his sleeping porters. Once widespread throughout Cambodia and Indochina, the common leopard (panthera pardus) has been reduced to about eight animals in Mondulkiri province, according to recent research. Back in 1297, the Chinese admiral Chou Ta-Kuan wrote that rhinoceros horns were exported from Cambodia. The last photograph of a rhinoceros in the kingdom is dated May 1930 and was taken by a French hunter standing over the dead animal in Kampong Cham province. Rhinos have likely been extinct in Cambodia for at least a half a century.
Is all hope lost? Is Cambodia’s future to look like that of Haiti—a once-lush country covered in forests and teaming with wildlife but now largely stripped bare? Will Cambodia be the poster child for environmental devastation in Southeast Asia? It is difficult not to be pessimistic, but the Davis family and the Ministry of Environment are still fighting hard for Phnom Tnout, refusing to give up, and the Wildlife Alliance continues to battle for the Cardamom Mountains (they helped find and destroy over 100,000 snares there). Virachey National Park is administered by enthusiastic management today, and many of the park rangers are top notch.
The Kingdom’s first marine sanctuary is being created in in the Kep archipelago, police continue to make wildlife trade busts, and the government and two NGOs collaborate to run the fantastic Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center outside of Phnom Penh. And yet, taking a hard look at things, it is difficult to be optimistic.
Some suspect that the ancient Angkor Kingdom collapsed because of environmental overshoot triggered by a major drawdown in resources needed to make the magnificent temples of Angkor Wat. Similar theories have been put forth about the Mayan civilizations in Central America and their temples. Could the whole thing happen again but on a much larger scale—say, nationwide—with the entire country experiencing that the area around Angkor did centuries ago? And could ecological collapses occur simultaneously or nearly simultaneously in Vietnam and Laos, maybe even in China as well?
An ecosystem-wide collapse is almost certainly well underway in the South China Sea where China is destroying corals to reclaim land to build its fake islands on, and one can only imagine what is happening in terms of illegal fishing and poaching of marine life in the vicinity of those island. The future of Southeast Asia is looking bleak, with large-scale environmental degradation becoming the norm; many of us may have even started to become numb to it.
Shopping malls, cement, highways, airports, steel and glass structures, smog and dead seas, denuded mountains and endless plantations where forests once stood, dammed rivers and wildlife extinctions, trash-filled beaches and dead whales and turtles with stomachs filled of plastic, baby elephants with snares on their legs and Malayan tapirs with snares on their necks, finless sharks drowning on the bottom of the sea and tigers grinded into aphrodisiac potions: that’s most likely the future of the region. And more and more of it, A.S.A.P.
The Anthropocene, the Age of Man.
Gregory McCann is the Project Coordinator for Habitat ID and the author of Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor.