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Will Cambodia’s wildlife be saved by eco-tourism?

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Aerial view of the Srepok River located in the heart of the Srepok Wildlife Sanctuary in Mondulkiri province. WWF-Cambodia

Will Cambodia’s wildlife be saved by eco-tourism?

Camera traps set up in Srepok Wildlife Sanctuary show a variety of wild animals roaming around in the protected habitat which is formally classified as a Lower Mekong Dry Forest Eco-region within the Eastern Plains.

Boars often wander by the World Wide Fund for Nature’s (WWF) forest cameras – usually alone – but occasionally a mother walking with her piglets is spotted, too.

The cameras have also captured herds of banteng munching away on grass and evidently unaware that they are an endangered species now or that Cambodia’s wild banteng population is the largest left on the planet and yet that still only adds up to about 850 animals.

WWF staff members were very surprised to see a leopard make an on-camera appearance for them on one occasion. There are likely so few leopards left in the wild in Cambodia that if we knew the actual number it would make the figure of 850 banteng look positively abundant by comparison.

The Ministry of Environment is planning to turn some portions of Cambodia’s wildlife sanctuaries located on the Eastern Plains into eco-tourism destinations. The idea is that the sustainable development offered by eco-tourism incentivizes ordinary Cambodians to protect the wildlife and habitat that is drawing the tourists and their dollars there.

“The official government policy is to transform a portion of the protected habitat areas into sustainable and responsible eco-tourist attractions,” says Neth Pheaktra, secretary of state and spokesman for the environment ministry.

Some parts of the nature reserves have already been established as suitable for eco-tourism and the communities who reside there have pledged to protect the wildlife and habitat in exchange for a cut of the potential post-pandemic tourism dollars that will be spent in Cambodia whenever that era inevitably begins.

Speaking at a press junket held at the Srepok Wildlife Sanctuary, Pheaktra said that the eco-tourism sites already designated as such included the Chrok La Eang Waterfall – a community-led eco-tourism project in Pursat province – and the Tmatboey Birding Site in Preah Vihear.

“Visitors to [Tmatboey] get to see the rare giant ibis and white-shouldered ibis from a distance that is close enough to appreciate their beauty, but not so close that it disturbs the birds,” Pheaktra says to the journalists the ministry has invited to see some of the natural beauty of Mondulkiri province.

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Herd of banteng with juveniles and young calves in the Srepok Wildlife Sanctuary. WWF-CAMbodia

The twin goals of all of the eco-tourism related policies are development and conservation. The broad consensus among experts today is that communities need sustainable development in order to be able to focus their resources and attention on conservation.

In other words, if people are struggling in abject poverty or starving and they see a giant ibis their inclination might be to eat the bird and save themselves rather than try to protect it.

But if they can make a good living showing the birds to eco-tourists – who also need lodgings, food and other amenities while visiting and these well-off travellers happily pay prices set well above the local rates – then that will change their calculus entirely.

“Eco-tourism will allow people to earn far more income by providing tourism-based services than they can ever hope to make from illegal logging or hunting,” Pheaktra points out.

The Eastern Plains of Cambodia are partly covered by mixed deciduous forests where the trees grow a fair distance from each other and this provides a nice clear view of the animals.

“This type of forest is perfect for eco-tourism because we can watch animals from a distance there and still get amazing views and photos of them without interfering with their lives,” says Pheaktra.

He points out that the first necessity for any animal habitat is food and the waist-high fields of grass provide plenty of food for animals – particularly ungulates like the banteng – who should be able to flourish and quickly replenish their numbers here if humans will give them a chance to do so.

“Rivers and streams cut through the landscape here providing an abundant source of fresh water and that’s always important because water is the only resource that is needed by all known forms of life on our planet, so the second necessity is met,” says Seng Teak, Country Director of WWF-Cambodia, who along with Pheaktra is serving as a host and guide for the journalists visiting the sanctuary.

Teak’s organisation, WWF-Cambodia, works with the environment ministry in two wildlife sanctuaries in Mondulkiri.

“The third necessity is shelter for the animals. I don’t mean barns or little houses, obviously. By that I mean natural habitats to which they are biologically suited and which affords them protection from predators, especially humans. The animals need to be able to live peacefully without worrying about snares, guns and chainsaws,” Teak explained.

“The government and the Ministry of Environment are making an effort to develop eco-tourist attractions, and the best eco-tourist attraction is wildlife,” Teak says.

He approves of the ministry’s plan to use some of the protected areas as potential nature and wildlife tourism sites because it necessarily involves serious conservation efforts in order to succeed.

“Of course, Srepok River is very beautiful but we expect that when we visit this place we will also see beautiful wild animals. So that means conservation – animals must be alive and healthy for this plan to work,” he says.

Nature enthusiasts who travel along the Srepok River can see monkeys like the black-shanked douc and huge majestic birds like the hornbill. If they are lucky, they might even spot some Siamese crocodiles.

Though Srepok Wildlife Sanctuary has enough resources to support a large population of animals in its protected area, it won’t be turned into an eco-tourism destination any time soon. Consider adding it to your bucket-list and checking back in a couple of decades.

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WWF-Cambodia technician shows a camera trap to Neth Pheaktra in the Srepok sanctuary. YOUSOS APDOULRASHIM

According to a 10-year-research project from the ministry and WWF, the animals in Srepok Wildlife Sanctuary have increased their numbers significantly – including banteng, red muntjac and wild boar – as well as some of the rarest and most difficult to research animals like gaur, sambar and Eld’s deer.

He said that the potential for eco-tourism is there if the number of animals increases significantly first, and he mentions building fences or finding some way to keep the sanctuary clear of snares and traps as theoretical solutions.

Upon hearing the word fences, Teak says: “If we could build a fence around the protected zone and keep all humans out, it would become a safe haven for the wildlife. We could gather animals from other regions and release them in the zone to increase breeding.

“Some rare animals would probably be saved from extinction by doing this – particularly those that we have trouble locating at all now such as sambar, Eld’s deer, tigers and other big cats,” Teak adds.

Pheaktra believes that the wildlife numbers in Srepok Sanctuary will increase with time if more can be done to protect the habitat and that perhaps someday the ministry will consider allowing visitors there.

“For now, however, for this core sanctuary zone, we definitely need to keep it free of humans other than our rangers and trusted partners like WWF. It isn’t ready for eco-tourism,” Pheaktra says.

Teak sums up the situation with characteristic bluntness and honesty, saying: “First thing is first: You can’t sell any high-end tourism packages unless you’ve got some wild animals left alive for them to watch.”

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