- In March 2021, this imbalance has widened into a chasm as Cambodia’s government signed Sub-decree No. 30 into law, effectively revoking protection from some 127,000 hectares of land in reserves, wildlife sanctuaries and national parks in the southern province of Koh Kong province.
- One of the protected areas affected is Peam Krasop Wildlife Sanctuary, which lost almost a third of its total land area to the sub-decree — meaning these habitats are now for sale.
- Peam Krasop is home to species threatened with extinction, such as the hairy-nosed otter — the world’s rarest otter species — and the fishing cat.
- Researchers say the degradation of these habitats could result in “trophic cascades“ in which the loss of key species destabilizes entire ecosystems , which in turn may lead to further loss.
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — In 2017, an elephant in Cambodia’s Kirium National Park was electrocuted as it leaned against power lines in a formerly forested area. This wasn’t an isolated incident—another elephant reportedly died in the same manner the previous year— and prompted conservationists to point to the widening imbalance between the need for development and conservation in Cambodia.
In March 2021, this imbalance has widened into a chasm as Cambodia’s government signed Sub-decree No. 30 into law, effectively revoking protection from some 127,000 hectares of land in reserves, wildlife sanctuaries and national parks in the southern province of Koh Kong.
This transformation of public, protected land into state-private land was ostensibly done to provide land titles to rural residents. However, a 2021 Mongabay investigation revealed that a group of land brokers with connections to Defense Minister Tea Banh and his brother Tea Vinh were buying up vast swathes of land degazetted by the sub-decree.
Asian elephants (Elephas maximus), Malayan sun bears (Helarctos malayanus), Asiatic black bears (Ursus thibetanus), pileated gibbons (Hylobates pileatus), Sunda pangolins (Manis javanica), fishing cats (Prionailurus viverrinus) and giant ibises (Thaumatibis gigantea) have all called Koh Kong home, but Cambodia’s coastal fire sale is just the latest in a string of threats looming over the province’s habitat and wildlife.
Together with NGO Wildlife Alliance, Veteran wildlife photographer Allan Michaud runs the Cardamom Tented Camp ecotourism project in Botum Sakor National Park, one of the protected areas affected by Sub-decree No. 30. Speaking in December 2021, he noted that the camp had just recorded its first elephant sighting in five years, with camera traps capturing what Michaud described as a small group of four adults, one teenager and five babies—indicating that this is a smaller group belonging to a larger herd.
Normally this herd lives between Areng and Chipat for around eight months of the year, but then crosses through Botum Sakor during the monsoon season before looping back north to Areng, Michaud said. He suggested the destruction around the a part of the park owned by Union Development Group (UDG) area had possibly pushed the herd back towards Cardamom Tented Camp, where suitable habitat still remains.
“We’re not sure why they’ve found their way back to our area,” he said. “But we have become a little island of late—I’d be very surprised if there won’t be much left but us and UDG two or three years from now, it’s just vanishing so fast.”
Michaud said the Wildlife Alliance concession in which Cardamom Tented Camp operates has helped preserve almost a tenth of Botum Sakor National Park, but acknowledges that ecotourism alone is no means of protecting Koh Kong from the myriad threats to its biodiversity and forests.
One such area yet to reap any real rewards from ecotourism, but still better preserved than Botum Sakor, is Peam Krasop Wildlife Sanctuary, a 23,750-hectare sanctuary of mangrove forests and wetlands that remove some 62,000 metric tons of CO2 from atmosphere every year and play host to rare wildlife such as the fishing cat, the Sunda pangolin, large spotted civets, hairy-nosed otters (Lutra sumatrana)—the rarest species of otter in the world—and even Irrawaddy dolphins (Orcaella brevirostris).
But the abundance of habitat provided by Peam Krasop Wildlife Sanctuary did little to spare it from the ravages of Sub-decree No. 30, which degazetted 7,235.14 hectares—almost a third of the protected area’s total land area—meaning these habitats are now for sale.
“From [an] ecological perspective, Peam Krasop Wildlife Sanctuary has some of the most unique and complex ecosystems remaining in the region, and their loss or degradation would spell local extinctions in the near term, and perhaps later regional and even global extinctions,” warned Vanessa Herranz-Muñoz, principal investigator at Cambodian Fishing Cat Project, a conservation NGO focused on the study and survival of Cambodia’s remaining fishing cat population.
In January 2022, a photo of what appear to be three dead fishing cats circulated on social media, reportedly run over by a bulldozer. As the species approaches extinction in Southeast Asia, even a small number of deaths among Cambodia’s fishing cat population could be significant.
“Furthermore, the loss or degradation of these habitats could lead to trophic cascades in which the loss of key species destabilizes entire ecosystems leading to further losses,” Herranz-Muñoz said. “From the climate perspective, the release of the vast amounts of carbon stored in these habitats would contribute to more devastating climate change impacts regionally and globally.”
As Peam Krasop’s residents and conservationists grapple with the new reality set to be foisted upon the protected area by the sub-decree, Koh Kapik Ramsar Site, a neighboring wetlands area, offers a bleak glimpse into the future. Much of Koh Kapik has already been cleared, owing to its historic relationship with Cambodian-Chinese pulping company Green Rich, whose initial concession in the Ramsar site spanned more than 60,000 hectares in 1998, but has since been reduced to 18,300 hectares as of 2003.
The original concession had an overlap of 3,355.8 hectares, roughly a third of the 12,000-hectare Ramsar site, that—according to Global Forest Watch data—lost approximately 1,000 hectares of tree cover between 2001 and 2020. Following the 2003 downsizing, Green Rich’s roughly 18,000-hectare concession, which spanned across parts of Koh Kapik Ramsar Site, Peam Krasop Wildlife Sanctuary and Botum Sakor National Park, lost 7,873 hectares of tree cover between 2004 and 2020.
Furthermore, Sub-decree No. 30 has seen roads linking Peam Krasop Wildlife Sanctuary to Koh Kapik carved through the wetlands in recent months, a move reportedly orchestrated by Defense Minister Tea Banh and Ly Yong Phat, one of Cambodia’s richest politicians. A bridge across the Tatai River is expected to be finished this year.
Neth Pheaktra, spokesperson for the Ministry of Environment, said he is proud of the how much land is protected in Cambodia, adding that the country had more than met its 2020 Aichi Biodiversity Targets, which required protection of at least 17% of land and inland waterbodies and 10% of marine and coastal areas.
While Herranz-Muñoz said that there are no accurate estimates on fishing cat populations in the mangroves and wetlands of Peam Krasop and Koh Kapik—and therefore no quantifiable means of establishing the impact such developments will have on them—she said that fishing cat populations both nationally and regionally are dwindling.
The relative preservation of the mangroves and wetlands has sustained an entire trophic chain, making the fishing cat one of Cambodia’s few surviving apex predators in its habitat, she said, whereas other top species such as tigers and crocodiles have been largely hunted to regional extinction.
“[Peam Krasop and Koh Kapik are] currently the most important refuge for fishing cats in Cambodia, that’s why we have been working tirelessly to protect them in collaboration with the Ministry of Environment and local Protected Area authorities for the last five years,” Herranz-Muñoz said. “Adequate protection and perhaps even restoration and expansion of mangrove and wetland habitats in [these areas] and beyond is the best hope for the persistence of fishing cats in Cambodia.”
Banner image: A fishing cat yawns. Image by Becker1999 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).
Related listening: Reporter Gerald Flynn appeared on Mongabay’s podcast to discuss the conservation and land rights implications of these moves by the Cambodian government, listen here:
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