Illegal hunting and logging were once rife in Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains but today many of the poachers have been retrained to help protect their surroundings
Text by Marissa Carruthers
Photography by Wildlife Rescue
Prom Heoung looks out across the carpet of green that seemingly rolls to the horizon. His soft voice interrupted only by bird song, the chorus of cicadas and the odd call of a monkey, he recalls a time when life in the isolated heart of the Cardamom Mountains, in southwest Cambodia, was very different.
Nestled on the banks of Piphot River, Heoung’s village, Chi Phat, was once a bustling hub for wildlife traffickers and loggers. Two decades of war had ravaged the community in the 1960s and 1970s and in its wake, with no education, land ownership or sustainable employment, the villagers’ only means of survival was by living off the land.
Up until little more than a decade ago, that meant almost all of the 550 families working as poachers. Heoung was recruited to set illegal blazes to clear land for use in farming, while at the same time hunting endangered wildlife to support his family.
He remembers logging concessions exploiting the forest surrounding his home in the late 1980s. Cambodians from across the country would flock to the area to fell rosewood and hunt wildlife for huge profits. “You could make much more money from this than farming,” says Heoung, adding that one cubic metre of rosewood netted loggers about US$5,000.
Pangolins, elephants and tigers, which carry the highest market values, were commonly targeted and traded on the black market in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, as well as across the borders in Thailand and Vietnam. Still today, pangolin scales and tiger penis are ingredients in traditional medicines; tiger heads and skin, and elephant ivory are viewed as prestigious ornaments, and pangolin meat is deemed a delicacy. A single tiger’s whisker sells for US$10 on the black market.
Home to a plethora of flora and fauna, the Cardamom Mountains is the second-largest of the region’s last remaining elephant corridors. Using guns, slings, poison and snares, much of the already dwindling population of rare and endangered species was targeted, along with other innocent animals.
In 2002, laws were introduced in Cambodia making wildlife trafficking and logging illegal. However, this failed to act as a deterrent, and it wasn’t until NGOs intervened that change started to take place.
In 2007, Wildlife Alliance (WA) launched its community-based eco-tourism (CBET) project in Chi Phat. The aim of the game was to provide a sustainable form of income for the community through employment as guides, homestay operators and cooks. Heoung signed up straight away, using his extensive knowledge of the jungle, the trails and the wildlife to lead adventurous tourists through the jungle.
“I stopped illegal activities when they arrived,” says Heoung, referring to WA.
Now working to protect his surroundings rather than destroy them, Heoung is one of many locals employed in the handful of eco-tourism projects in the Cardamoms. Also believing education is key, WA recruits locals to visit schools and communities to explain the importance of preserving the rare flora and fauna of the rainforest. Former poachers and loggers have been recruited to the ranks of Community Anti-Poaching Unit Rangers, which patrol the forest around Chi Phat.
Since its launch, Chi Phat has welcomed more than 13,000 tourists from all corners of the globe. According to WA, the poaching patrols have led to a 95% reduction in illegal slash and burn farming and 70% less poaching.
“By providing former poachers and loggers a sustainable income through tourism WA has helped stopped their dependency on former practices that were degrading the forests in the area,” says the Alliance’s Nick Marx. “Tourism provides them an income and demonstrates the monetary value for protecting the forest and its wildlife.”
Sitting just seven kilometres away from the village is another innovative project that is proving popular with visitors since launching last year. WA’s wildlife release station is a 30-minute motorbike ride through emerald green fields and rugged jungle. Sat in a grassy clearing are three thatched chalets constructed by locals, and a kitchen and dining area.
A short stroll away sit the stars of the show, a collection of animals that are being slowly reintroduced to the wild after being rescued from the clutches of poachers and other illegal activities, and nursed back to health at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre, in Phnom Penh. Many of the animals at Phnom Tamao will never be released back into the wild, but those that can are transported to this release station, for re-integrating back into their natural habitat.
Here sun bears can be seen sleeping in the treetops or roaming around their one-hectare reserve, wreathed hornbills can be fed, and visitors can watch the pangolins guzzle up the plate of ants. Common palm civets, longtail macaques and leopard cats can also be seen in temporary cages as they prepare for their second chance at life.
“It has been incredible watching the change here,” says Marx as he briefs a group of poachers-turned-rangers who are about to set off on patrol. “It is all about empowerment. Equipping people with skills and educating them. This community is now thriving for all the right reasons, and the benefits to the surroundings are evident. This was once the hunting capital but by giving former poachers and loggers jobs through tourism, it is providing them with an income and helps to protect the forest and wildlife.” AA
When to go
Dry season runs from October to April and is the best time to visit the Cardamom Mountains.
How to get there
A bus from Phnom Penh takes 4.5 hours, and from the coast at Sihanoukville or Koh Rong, two hours. Ask to be dropped off at Andoung Tuek Bridge where WA meets guests to transport them the rest of the way by motorbike.
NGO Metta Natures runs treks in the Aural area, led by monk and activist, Ven Dhammajat. See their Facebook for details.
Ritthy Koh Kong Adventure Tours uses local guides. Visit kohkongecoadventure.com
Learn survival skills from a former French Foreign Legionnaire as K1 Cambodian Jungle Trekking take you deep into the Sre Ambel area. See their Facebook for details.