By: Gregory McCann

Environmentalists say they are ready to “blacklist” Cambodia’s Virachey National Park, beset by illegal logging in all but its most distant sections.  One of only two Cambodian ASEAN Heritage Parks and one of the top priority areas for conservation in Southeast Asia and spanning nearly 3,500 sq.km, it is located in Ratanakiri and Stung Treng provinces in the kingdom’s far northeast.

What is happening in Virachey is not a problem specific to the park but is emblematic for all of Cambodia’s so-called protected areas, and all of Indochina. This region is ground zero for conservation in the Anthropocene Era, and it is a shame because it’s one of the world’s most biodiverse regions.  Nonetheless, the park should be taken off the blacklist. After all, it’s really in no worse shape than any of Cambodia’s other “protected” areas, and in fact, few Cambodian parks can match what our camera traps have uncovered. Welcome to conservation in Indochina in the Anthropocene!

“Blacklisted,” a Cambodian friend said. “Virachey is blacklisted,” he repeated. It was the first time I ever heard him use that word, and it resonated with me. I have spent nearly a decade researching and working for conservation and ecotourism in the park.

His words seemed to be confirmed by a veteran conservationist whom I later met within Phnom Penh, who remarked: “Let’s face it, nobody is going to go up there and help save Virachey.”  A longtime conservationist now based in Bangkok put it even more bluntly: “You’re pissing in the wind.”

My friends in conservation are probably right: the cavalry will not be coming over the hill to help fend off Virachey’s enemies. I had just about given up on the park myself last year, and it was only because my research partner was so resourceful in procuring a new set of camera traps and was so determined to survey an unexplored massif in a highly remote corner of the park that I finally caved in and decided to return to Virachey earlier this year. His enthusiasm was infectious, but I remembered why I had become so pessimistic.

Last year the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) published a damning report titled “Repeat Offenders” detailing the massive scale of illegal logging operations in Cambodia and Laos for Vietnamese timber syndicates. Most of the logs from Cambodia came from Virachey. In fact, on every Virachey expedition, we encountered loggers on specially-refitted motorbikes hauling out valuable timber in all of but the most distant sections. The EIA published another report this year titled Serial Offender: Vietnam’s Continued Imports of Illegal Cambodian Timber, and according to the authors, illegal logging continues unabated. What I have witnessed, including this year’s expedition, confirms that.  

These reports probably help explain the blacklisting, but the problem predates the EIA. From 2004-2008 the World Bank invested US$5 million in a conservation and ecotourism-building program in Virachey, only to have the Royal Cambodian government tell them, just months before the project was up for renewal, that they planned to allow an Australian mining company called Indochine Ltd. explore for minerals throughout 90 percent of the park. It seemed like US$5 million had been flushed down the toilet, and when the World Bank withdrew from Virachey, so did the NGOs who were working in there, such as WWF and WCS.

The unsustainable illegal logging of Cambodian protected areas—and the overall unraveling of these supposed sanctuaries—is not limited to Virachey and the northeast. Earlier this year, two protected areas were degazetted outright for the reason that they had been completely devastated by illegal logging, agricultural encroachment, and land clearance. In the Southern Cardamom National Park alone, 109, 217 snares were found and collected by park rangers, and they estimate that many more went undetected—and that’s just one national park. With numbers like that it’s a wonder that any wildlife remains.

And yet it does. We paid a ragged team of local motorbikers, using the same log-hauling refits, to take us as far as possible towards the Lao border. The area had never been surveyed before, and we were hoping to document species never before recorded in Cambodia, such as the Owston’s civet (Chrotogale owstoni) and the large-antlered muntjac (Muntiacus vuquangensis), both of which until now have only been found in Laos and Vietnam. We recently harvested the first round of SD card data from the camera traps, and while these two elusive species did not appear (though, I should add that only 6/7 camera SD cards were changed—due to a mistake—so hope remains) the preliminary results are inspiring. We obtained extremely rare footage of a gibbon (Nomascus Annamensis) walking on the forest floor, as well as Sunda Pangolin (listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN), Asian golden cat, binturong, sun bear, Asian black bear, serow, black-hooded laughingthrush (our expedition made the first record for this species in Cambodia in 2015), and many other species.

In the past three years, we also rediscovered Asian elephants and logged the first record for back-striped weasel in Cambodia. Other increasingly rare species such as clouded leopards, marbled cats, hog badgers, and dholes appeared regularly on our camera traps.

What does this mean? Do the “spirit mountains”—as the ethnic Brao and Kavet people of Ratanakiri call them—along the Virachey-Laos border really offer protection to wildlife against poachers? Is the topography of the park so steep and difficult to move around in, unlike much of the rest of Cambodia, which is largely flat, that it affords wildlife a fighting chance? Gibbons probably wouldn’t be walking around on the ground if they thought they would encounter a human, and other large mammals pay frequent visits to our camera stations.

My guess is that the remoteness of the area and the extreme gradation of the terrain have offered a lifeline to wildlife. Add to this that the current manager of the park has a fighting spirit about him and logging raids have been conducted, causing, I hope, some transgressors to second-guess their sense of impunity.

A border-belt road is being cut through the park along the Lao border, and this would imperil the most sensitive areas of the Park. However, from what I have heard, construction is proceeding much more slowly than previously estimated due to those rugged mountains that are providing sanctuary to wildlife. The spirit mountains are slowing down poachers, loggers, and bulldozers! Maybe the Brao and Kavet highlanders are on to something.

Gregory McCann is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel and is the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor.