Sunday, 25 February 2007

The Srepok Wilderness Area

It felt strange when the police officer armed with an AK47 jumped onto the back of our pick up to escort us into the Srepok Wilderness Area. We had just stopped at the first outpost of the WWF project and had a chat with rangers and law enforcers there. They showed us wood they confiscated a few weeks ago.

Illegal logging is a huge problem throughout Cambodia and so is poaching. WWF launched a new project four years ago in this remote forest which they say is the Serengeti of Southeast Asia. Five outposts were built in the forest. Rangers and police officers generally spend 20 day stints in the forest, patrolling together and recording the animals they sight on their treks which can last up to five days.

The WWF made a concious effort to recruit former poachers when they chose their rangers for their project. Mr Kha is the head ranger and somewhat of an icon here in the region. A former body guard during the Khmer Rouge he tells me he shot ten tigers during his more than 30 years of hunting.

Poaching is a very lucrative business or at least it used to be when the forest was full of animals. But during the years of war, this area close to the Vietnamese border was heavily bombed and hunting seriously endangered many species throughout the forest. Now the WWF along with the Cambodian government is trying to put an end to poaching. Community extension teams are teaching locals why hunting has such negative effects and how it will ultimately destroy their livelihoods. The process is of course long. 65% of the villagers (most of them ethnic Phnongs) are said to be still hunting in the forests and you can't stop them from going into the forest from one day to the next. After all they have been living off the forest for many generations.

WWF's approach is therefore twofold: firstly working on the conservation and law enforcement, and secondly: closely working with the communities to make sure they will have sustainable alternative sources of income when they completely stop hunting. The WWF's local extension teams are training farmers how to improve their chicken raising and their rice production. They teach them about mushroom plantation and wild honey gathering. In addition the WWF also plans to set up a five star tourist lodge on the banks of the Srepok River. It will not only be an additional source income for the locals, but encourage the Cambodian government to really enforce the laws and protect the wildlife in this area. It sounds obvious, but theory is a richer wildlife will lead to more tourists and hopefully prompt the government to make this area a priority - and ultimately see more benefits flowing back into local communities.


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