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Cambodia declares new national park, plans to reintroduce tigers

  • The move grants protection to more than a million acres of rainforest, and joins a group of protected areas totaling 4.5 million acres.
  • The Cardamom Mountains are home to many threatened species, including Asian elephants and Siamese crocodiles.
  • Tigers have been absent in Cambodia since 2007. The government, together with an NGO working in the region, is preparing to reintroduce them to Southern Cardamom National Park.

Over the past 15 years, Cambodia has lost enough tree cover to fill the U.S. state of Connecticut as forests are logged and agroindustries clear land for rubber and other commodity plantations. But conservation in the country scored a win earlier this month with the debut of Southern Cardamom National Park, issuing in stronger protections for over a million acres of one of the Southeast Asia’s last great rainforests.

The new national park is located in the Cardamom Mountains that fill the southwestern portion Cambodia. In their lush, montane forests live a trove of wildlife, including 2,000 known plant species and 28 threatened animal species. Endangered Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) and pileated gibbons(Hylobates pileatus) call the Cardamoms home, as do 75 percent of the global population of the critically endangered Siamese crocodile ((Crocodylus siamensis) and all the world’s river terrapins (Batagur affinis), which are hovering on the brink of extinction.

Southern Cardamom National Park acts as the final piece in a network of protected areas that now affords protection to nearly 4.5 million acres. Declared through sub-decree by the Cambodian government on May 9, the park is the end result of a campaign spearheaded by NGOs Wildlife Alliance and Rainforest Trust in response to habitat threats to the area.

Asian elephants are listed by the IUCN as Endangered, and surveys indicate they have declined 50 percent over the past three generations. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

According to Wildlife Alliance (WA), the region was slated 36 times for conversion to agricultural land and mines. However, conservationists successfully fended off each advance.

“Although land use changes have been affecting Cambodia’s forests — Cambodia has one of the fastest deforestation rates in the world in recent years — the Cardamom mountains have been fairly well protected thanks to Wildlife Alliance’s presence on the ground since 2002 with a ranger force and regular daily patrolling,” said WA CEO and founder Suwanna Gauntlett.

But before 2002 was a different story, according to Gauntlett. She told Mongabay that there was no ranger force in the region when WA first arrived, and that land prospectors and hunters were destroying habitat and the wildlife within. The overarching cause of this was a new highway connecting Cambodia to Thailand that had been built through 100 kilometers of rainforest.

“As we arrived in the crisis area, 12 tigers and 37 elephants had been slaughtered in just a few months and the rainforest was up in flames with 37 to 45 forest fires visible from the freeway any given day,” Gauntlett said. “Despite arrest of the most sought after tiger hunter in the country in 2004 by our rangers, and seizure of several tiger traffickers with tiger parts from 2002-2006, it soon appeared that our arrival and efforts to stop tiger poaching came too late. The tiger population had already been decimated by 20 years of civil war with no attention to anti-poaching law enforcement.”

After they arrived on the scene, Wildlife Alliance, working in concert with Cambodia’s Forestry Administration, established a ranger presence in the southern Cardamoms that patrols the region to keep illegal logging and poaching at bay.

Gauntlett told Mongabay that in addition to working on the ground, WA took their fight to the government to try to extinguish economic land concessions that were eating up more and more of the region’s forest. Economic land concessions (ELCs) are long-term leases of large areas of land granted by the government to agroindustry companies. The companies then use the land for such things as establishing plantations, pasture, or factories that process agricultural goods. Beginning with the 2001 passage of Cambodia’s Land Law, ELCs have spread throughout the country, attracting significant criticism from individuals and organizations that say they have facilitated land grabbing and the clearing of biologically valuable wilderness – even in protected areas.

Wildlife Alliance’s efforts paid off, with the revocation of many ELCs destined for the Cardamoms; among them a titanium mine, a banana plantation, cattle pasture, and a new city, “all planned smack in the middle of the rainforest,” Gauntlett said. In total, she added, WA’s advocacy campaign saved an area of forest two-thirds the size of Yellowstone National Park from industrial conversion.

“Thanks to this ranger presence, coupled with Wildlife Alliance advocacy at central government level, we were able to maintain continuous forest cover over the last 14 years and avoid fragmentation of the South West Elephant Corridor, one of Asia’s last remaining un-fragmented elephant corridors.”

But long-term preservation is hard to come by without official protection, which the area lacked until last month.

“We attempted several times to obtain legal protection status for the Southern Cardamoms since 2011 without success,” Gauntlett said. “When we presented the area again in 2014, the Cambodian government was more receptive. After months of painstaking work on the ground by Wildlife Alliance and all levels of community and government to re-measure land allocated to communities that needed to be excluded from the national park boundaries, the national park boundary map was finally agreed upon by all parties. This resulted in the May 2016 declaration of the Southern Cardamoms National Park.”

Global Forest Watch shows Cambodia lost nearly 18 percent of its tree cover between 2001 and 2014 – giving it one of the world’s highest rates of deforestation. In comparison, the region comprising Southern Cardamom National Park has lost 3 percent of its forests. However, its annual rate of tree cover loss has increased in recent years. Its new status as a national park will afford its forest greater protection from threats like logging.
Data from Global Forest Watch show Cambodia lost nearly 18 percent of its tree cover between 2001 and 2014 – giving it one of the world’s highest deforestation rates. In comparison, the region comprising Southern Cardamom National Park has lost 3 percent of its tree cover. However, its annual rate of tree cover loss has increased in recent years. Its new status as a national park will afford its forest greater protection from threats like logging.

In 2012, Cambodia issued a moratorium on new ELCs. However, many of those that had already been established were allowed to continue operating. Among them is an ELC that directly abuts a small portion of the new national park. However, Gauntlett isn’t worried about it.

“The ELC that abuts the Southern Cardamom National Park has been diligently respecting their allocated boundaries and are not clearing forest outside,” she said. “Wildlife Alliance has had a good working relationship with this ELC since 2004.”

As for what happens next, the organization is currently working to get Southern Cardamom ready for the reestablishment of a tiger population. Considered functionally extinct in Cambodia, no tigers have been observed in the Cardamoms since 2007. But through its Tiger Action Plan, the Cambodian government is preparing to bring some over from neighboring countries. To help achieve this goal, WA is planning on opening three more ranger stations and hiring more rangers to help protect new tigers. They’re also taking a thorough look at the park’s habitat to make sure there’s enough food to sustain them.

“Wildlife Alliance is currently conducting a Systematic Camera Survey in the Southern Cardamoms to analyze and evaluate presence of sufficient tiger prey base in the area in preparation for future potential reintroduction,” Gauntlett said.

Editors’ note: a previous version misattributed quotes from Suwanna Gauntlett.

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