Conservation news

Last Glimpses of a Cambodian Paradise? Documenting an area on the eve of its likely destruction (commentary)

First came the damning reports from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA): one last year titled “Repeat Offenders,” which described the massive logging operations taking place in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park, O Yadav National Park, and Lumphat Wildlife Sanctuary. And then another earlier this year, published as a follow-up piece focusing almost squarely on Virachey National Park and titled “Serial Offenders,” which detailed the almost unfathomable scale of illegal logging operations in the Park to feed Vietnam’s rapacious desire for timber for its multi-billion dollar furniture industry — products that, when carved and polished in their final forms, end up in furniture stores in the United States, China, and the EU.

The sheer scale of the logging operations makes it a wonder that there’s anything left of the forest, especially as the timber just keeps flowing out of northeast Cambodia and into Vietnam unabated. In fact, Cambodia has one of the world’s highest deforestation rates.

Yet there is still plenty of wildlife, at least in Virachey National Park, where I have been part of a team that has been conducting a wildlife survey for four years now. Last year we rediscovered Asian elephants after they had not been detected in the Park for over a decade (our paper appeared in the December 2017 issue of the Cambodian Journal of Natural History), and we recently published a paper in the IUCN journal Small Carnivore Conservation documenting Cambodia’s first record of Back-striped Weasel (Mustela Strigidorsa).

An Asian black bear on the move in Virachey National Park. Photo courtesy of Greg McCann.

In 2017 we published a paper describing 10 small carnivore species that appeared on our camera traps, including what was only the third record of spotted linsang in the country, as well as other increasingly rare species such as otters, binturong, and hog badgers. This year, one of our camera traps captured an extremely rare recording of a Northern buffed-cheeked gibbon (Nomascus Annamensis) walking on the forest floor. Clouded leopards, golden cats, marbled cats, and leopard cats — the “standard four” evergreen forest feline species, as they are sometimes referred to — appear regularly on our camera traps.

Here is a short video compilation recorded from a single camera trap on a fallen log in one of Virachey National Park’s most difficult to reach locations (note: look at the expression on the gibbon’s face when he notices the camera trap; this is the Northern yellow-cheeked gibbon, Nomascus Annamensis, which is listed by the IUCN as Endangered):

Perhaps an equally good indicator of the health of the park is the fact that both species of bear that occur in Cambodia, the sun bear and the Asiatic black bear, put in regular appearances at many of our camera stations as well.

Despite all of this biodiversity and the beauty of the Park, which draws ecotourists from all over the world, it seems that, alas, all hope may be lost. Virachey is one of the many victims of Homo sapiens’ rapacious desire for natural resources in the Anthropocene Era. Two Cambodian “protected areas” have already been degazetted this year because there was nothing left of them after they had been stripped bare by mankind.

To make matters worse, a “border belt” road is being bulldozed through the most remote and sensitive area of the Park along the Lao border in the name of “national security,” a controversial infrastructure project that even spurred the Lao Army to cross over into Cambodia to dig trenches and install machine gun nests (the tense standoff was later peacefully resolved after Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen flew to Vientiane to diffuse the situation, though some question whether the border issue has really been concluded).

What does all this mean for the rare and enigmatic wildlife that calls Virachey National Park home? I wrote up above that all hope could well be lost — man/progress must be served. But are the nails firmly placed in the biodiversity coffin and awaiting final pounding? Perhaps not.

A serow on the move. Photo courtesy of Greg McCann.

Hope, if there is any, might come from the animist beliefs of the Brao and Kavet highlanders who live in the Park’s buffer zone along the now-dammed Sesan River, which snakes around the park’s perimeter. The largest mountains that form the natural (and until now almost entirely undemarcated) international border between northeastern Cambodia (where Virachey lies) and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic’s forested Nam Ghong Provincial Protection Area are considered “spirit mountains” by the Brao and Kavet tribal people. The peaks, which carry names like Haling-Halang, T’buen, Yak Yeuk, and Ching-Yum, send shivers down these animists’ spines.

The massifs are the homes of powerful deities and snares cannot be set there, wood cannot be harvested; heck, when nature calls, a visitor is obliged to run off to the edge of the escarpment to relieve himself for fear of incurring the wrath of the gods in the form of thunderstorms, lightning, earthquakes, and even Yeti attacks.

A common palm civet coming down a tree. Photo courtesy of Greg McCann.

However, Vietnamese loggers and poachers harbor no such fears. Nor do the Cambodian military engineering corps, who are bulldozing the road along the border. Nonetheless, even the non-believers can be held up by the animist deities. Some of those mountains reach over 1,500 meters above sea level and the road simply cannot be plowed through their incredibly steep and rocky flanks. Likewise, logging and poaching becomes much more problematic for the tenacious Vietnamese criminals who travel so far to plunder Cambodia’s heritage.

The “spirit mountains,” it seems — and our camera traps prove it — offer the final refuge for wildlife, despite the considerable pressures being wrought on the region. Bulldozers will have to make wide detours around the high peaks and this will slow down progress and provide the wildlife that lives there some room to breathe. Likewise, loggers and poachers have a much more difficult time in this sort of extreme terrain, but that doesn’t mean they’ll quit.

A barking deer (muntjac) posing in front of a camera trap. Photo courtesy of Greg McCann.

The World Bank pulled out of Virachey back in 2008 after having invested $5 million in a conservation and ecotourism-building program, and the big NGOs fled with them. Since then, this strikingly beautiful national park has had to largely fend for itself, with its spirit mountains offering the only real protection for its wildlife. Our small NGO, Habitat ID, has been the only organization working in the Park since then. We have documented rare wildlife such as the red-shanked douc langur (Pygathrix nemaeus), which may actually be a hybrid species in this region, crossed possibly with the grey-shanked douc (Pygathrix cinerea), as well as dholes, serows, Blyth’s frogmouths, Wreathed hornbills, and a plethora of other iconic species that cling to survival in Virachey despite all the pressures. My research partner and our team of national park rangers and Brao and Kavet guides and porters continue to fight for Virachey (and we rely almost exclusively on crowdfunding donations to maintain our operations).

A Sunda pangolin, listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN. Photo courtesy of Greg McCann.

But a few local communities and one NGO — even with all the donations in the world — can’t save this park.

I’ve thought about throwing in the towel many times, but I keep coming back to Ratanakiri province and Virachey National Park year after year after year after year. William DeBuys, in his brilliant book The Last Unicorn, which is set in the Annamite Mountains of neighboring Laos, states, quite poignantly, that conservationists can never give up, that luck can (and often does) play a role; that, no matter how bad things may seem, we never really know how they’re going to turn out. We have to press on, even though the roads are coming from the east and west in a pincer move, and even though poachers and illegal loggers run rampant through the park. No matter what, I know I’ll be there till the end, when and if it comes, because Virachey is too special a place to be abandoned.

A sun bear sniffing and getting ready to scratch a tree. Photo courtesy of Greg McCann.

CITATIONS

• McCann, G. & Pawlowski, K. (2017). Small carnivores’ records from Virachey National Park, north-east Cambodia. Small Carnivore Conservation, 55, 26-41.

• McCann, G. & Pawlowski, K. (2018). First record of Stripe-backed Weasel Mustela strigidorsa in Cambodia. Small Carnivore Conservation.

Gregory McCann is the Project Coordinator for Habitat ID, the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor, and the administrator of a crowdfunder to support Virachey.

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