In Cambodia’s remote far northern reaches, tucked against the border with Laos, is the mostly dry forest of Western Siem Pang. Pockmarked with trapeangs (waterholes), it’s home to a remarkable number of species virtually extinct everywhere else.
The forest is one of the last places in the world where it’s possible to find critically endangered white shouldered ibises, red–headed vultures, slender-billed vultures, white-rumped vultures, giant ibises (Cambodia’s national bird) and a whole range of other endangered species.
“There are one or two other places in Cambodia that have similar suites of species, but outside of Cambodia … you won’t find five critically endangered species of bird in one place,” said Jonathan Eames, the author of Hidden Natural Wonder of Cambodia, a new glossy 240-page hardcover book packed with stunning photography documenting the land, animals and people of Western Siem Pang through the extremes of the wet and dry seasons.
Eames, the chief technical adviser in Cambodia for BirdLife International, started work on the book four years ago. In order to get the shots he needed, he spent weeks near trapeangs sitting from dawn to dusk in small camouflaged blinds made of sticks and leaves, waiting for wildlife to come to drink.
“You just need to have the patience and state of mind to sit on your butt in one little space for a week at a time,” he said.
Eames said there were only a couple of rare animals he didn’t manage to snap, such as the elusive leopard.
“We put out a dead cow and sat there for a week in the hide watching it,” he said. “The only animals that came to it were maggots. We just sort of it watched this cow for a week, slowly decomposing in front of us.”
Alongside the photographs, the book provides notes on different aspects of life in the area: from the nesting habits of the giant ibis to attempts to stop illegal logging, the traditional uses of fire to extract resin from trees and re-invigorate the forest and the feeding frenzies of vultures.
Eames said the book’s primary purpose was to make the case to the Cambodian government and donors that the area was worth protecting.
Some progress is already being made towards that goal. The northern part of the area was declared a protected forest a year ago, and in January an economic land concession (ELC) awarded to Mong Reththy’s Green Sea Industries that covered the southern part was scaled back from 100,852 hectares to 9,800 hectares.
The semi-evergreen forest areas had been heavily logged ahead of the ELC’s cancellation, but the tree cutters had not returned this dry season, Eames said.
“I did a big patrol east of the river a couple of weeks ago with an enforcement team,” Eames said. “We found people logging, but it was just villagers. Not industrial-scale logging like before.”
He said the biggest threat to the area now was the growing number of people living in the area, who hunted the animals for food and chopped down the trees.
The push is now to have the southern part of Western Siem Pang also declared a protected forest.
“It’s really that southern part that the book is about, because that’s the site with most of the globally irreplaceable conservation value in terms of wildlife,” Eames said.
However, Eames said he believed tourism was the area’s only long-term hope. The site is about seven hours drive from Phnom Penh – just head to Stung Treng and turn right – there’s a guest house in Siem Pang town and camping is possible.
He said the dry forest was very beautiful and, with its open canopy, minimal undergrowth and clear views, lent itself to driving around in a jeep.
“I think we could start by restoring some of these large mammal species,” he said. “In dry season, it’s very pleasant. And if the forest had its big animals back, it would be a big tourism attraction. Part of my vision for the site would be to have a high-end lodge where you could fly people in for three nights and they would spend $600-700 a night.
“The book also tries to open people’s minds to that idea, too. Because the use of the forest is just pretty unimaginative at the moment – just flatten it and replace it with rubber or cassava.”
Hidden Natural Wonder of Cambodia is available from Monument Books and costs $50.