- A sub-decree issued earlier this month conferred official protection to 65,000 hectares in northern Cambodia, with Western Siem Pang protected forest now totaling more than 132,000 hectares.
- The forest is considered a biodiversity hotspot and is home to several endangered species.
- While its new status confers protection from large-scale industrial agriculture, conservationists say more money is needed to safeguard the area against illegal logging and poaching.
A new protected area in northern Cambodia has raised hopes for the future of five critically endangered bird species.
About 65,000 hectares of the Western Siem Pang protected forest, long-recognized as an important biodiversity hotspot, was granted legal protection on May 9 under a prime ministerial sub-decree. In January 2014, the northern half of the biodiversity area was also transformed into a wildlife sanctuary, meaning that now the area under protection covers more than 132,000 hectares
BirdLife International, an NGO that worked in partnership with the environment and agriculture ministries to achieve the protected status, said in a statement that the new designation was “the missing piece of a jigsaw of protected forests that now extends across 700,000 hectares in southern Laos, northern Cambodia and western Vietnam.”
The organization said the area is a “perfect candidate for World Heritage Site nomination.”
Siem Pang is home to populations of the critically endangered white-shouldered ibis, about a tenth of the global population of giant ibis, and a significant number of rare vulture species, including the critically endangered slender-billed vulture. Other key, threatened species supported by the forest include Eld’s deer, gaur, banteng, clouded leopard and red-shanked douc langurs.
Jonathan Charles Eames OBE, a senior technical advisor to BirdLife based in Cambodia, said that the protected status was vital for preserving the area against environmental degradation.
“Without protection that attrition of the biodiversity would continue,” he told Mongabay, adding that BirdLife had an enforcement team of military police who conduct patrols against illegal loggers and poachers.
“We definitely have a problem with hunting. It’s opportunistic. My concern particularly is the population of Eld’s deer. As far as I can make out we have the largest population of Eld’s deer in Cambodia. While gun ownership isn’t widespread among Cambodian villagers, they all go into the forest with dogs.”
He added that BirdLife planned to approach Minister of Environment Say Sam Al about the possibility of applying for World Heritage Site status for the forest.
In 2014 Siem Pang district was hit hard by industrial-scale logging. Several large economic land concessions (ELCs) flank Siem Pang’s forests, and shortly after the first wildlife sanctuary designation in January of that year the country’s most prominent logging cartel, headed by Try Pheap, a close associate of Prime Minister Hun Sen dubbed the “King of Rosewood” by NGO Global Witness, moved into the area in search of luxury timber such as Pterocarpus pedatus, known locally as “thnong.”
“They were interested in high-value timber, and most of that is growing in semi-evergreen forest,” Eames said, adding that much of the Western Siem Pang Wildlife Sanctuary is deciduous dipterocarp, which afforded the area some protection from the loggers.
“They did take some timber out where they found it along watercourses, but they were mainly bent on getting into the evergreen forest,” he said.
Pheap’s storage depot in the area has since been shuttered and the organized logging teams have moved on. Meanwhile, the agriculture ministry has reduced the size of the 100,000-hectare Green Sea Agriculture Company concession, leased for 70 years to tycoon Mong Reththy, to less than a tenth of its previous size under a nationwide audit of ELCs.
Despite the drawdown in industrial-scale logging in the area, a senior conservationist in Cambodia, who declined to be named, said most of the ELCs near protected areas were implicated in laundering timber cut in protected areas, which is then moved into the “legal” supply chain.
“This occurs in [Western Siem Pang] and will need a stronger commitment from [the environment ministry] and the province to stop,” he said. “The narrative that this is all foreign is one that we hear in Cambodia, but is not true. Timber may end up in Vietnam, but it is Cambodian cartels that are cutting and transporting it.”
In another development worrying conservationists, the Ministry of Environment has leased vast swathes of the country’s protected areas to private companies since 2009, and has recently admitted to slashing the size of wildlife sanctuaries and national parks to accommodate the companies’ developments.
Leng Ouch, a lawyer who received the Goldman Prize in April for his investigations into illegal logging in Cambodia, questioned the government’s commitment to protected areas such as Western Siem Pang.
“Deforestation has had disastrous impacts on the environment,” Ouch said. “It’s a fundamental issue now, while climate change has increased natural disasters like the current drought, storms, and while the sesan river is being dammed.”
“How can the government oversee protected areas when sawmills and furniture production businesses are operating around the country and timber is still being cut and transported openly?”
Forestry Administration Director Chheng Kimsun could not be reached this week.
Ross Sinclair, country director of the Wildlife Conservation Society, which oversees the Prey Preah Roka Wildlife Sanctuary, which was recognized in the May 9 decree along with Western Siem Pang, said the Cambodian government had made a “major contribution to protecting this threatened habitat type and the numerous endangered species it holds.”
However, he issued a word of caution.
“Despite the protected status, all the threats they have faced remain, except large-scale clearance for industrial agriculture,” he told Mongabay. “Illegal hunting and cutting do not stop just because of a change in status of a forest.
“The protection is a good first step that allows Ministry of Environment and NGO partners to undertake patrolling and other activities, but significant new funding is going to be required for [Western Siem Pang] and the other new protected areas for them to be protected.”