Seima Biodiversity Conservation Area, Mondulkiri, Cambodia, Part I
Oct 10, 2006
I've been in Mondulkiri for about 2 weeks, now, and it's one of the most magical places I've ever been. I think I'm in a good position to judge, since I've lived in a lot of amazing places over the years: among the bison heards at the foot of the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado, on a tropical beach on St. Croix, in the middle of the East African savannah.... This place is right up there with the best of them. I am living in the Seima Biodiversity Conservation Area (SBCA), a recently established protected area administered by the Cambodian government's Forestry Administration (FA), with the support of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), a US-based conservation NGO.
The SBCA includes something like 300,000 ha (750,000 acres) of mostly intact second-growth tropical evergreen and semi-deciduous forest.
This area was granted as a logging concession to a company called Samling in the late 1990s. The company came in, built a nice new road and a logging camp, and started logging the area nearest the road. Then, in 2002?, Cambodia instituted a moratorium on all logging (in reponse to astonishing rates of deforestation). That moratorium still stands, although there is quite a bit of illegal logging going on across the country. The SBCA was created out of this logging concession as something of an experiment. It is the only protected area in Cambodia administered by the Forest Administration, and it has more flexible rules about the kinds of activities that are legal within in (forestry and farming are potentially allowed, with restrictions that are yet to be determined). Most protected areas in Cambodia, including the national parks, are administered by a different government agencies, and have much stricter limits on their uses. Unfortunately, enforcement is almost non-existent for most parks, so these stricter rules are meaningless. Just to the north and south of the SBCA are two Wildlife Sanctuaries, and those have not been at all effective in protecting the forest or the wildlife.
The two major threats in this area are poaching and illegal land clearing. The poachers mostly go after rare and endangered wildlife to be sold for use as food and medicine in Vietnam and China. We are very close to the Vietnamese border here, so it is fairly easy for the poachers to get wildlife to market in Vietnam, where the international laws on trade in endangered species are not generally enforced. A few days ago the rangers here arrested a Vietnamese poacher heading for the border with two 1+ meter (3-4 foot) monitor lizards, a 2 meter (6 foot) reticulated python, nine endangered turtles, and three pangolins (2 adults, one with a baby). These animals are all threatened or endangered, and all very valuable. If the poacher had made it to the border, these animals would probably have ended up in restaurants in Vietnam, where you can go in and select your dinner from a variety of live animals in cages and tanks. The pangolins are valued for their supposed medicinal properties. The one good thing about this kind of wildlife trade is that the animals are more valuable alive, so the traders have an incentive to keep them alive during transport. If they are caught, the animals can be released back into the wild, where they have at least some chance of survival.
I was allowed to tag along when they released some of the confiscated animals, and I got some good photos, which I will upload when I get back to civilization. The pangolins were especially cool. I've never seen anything like them: like a cross between an aardvark, an armadillo, and and a monkey--they have armor plates and prehensile tails. The baby clings onto the mother's back, which was vey cute. They're very slow and sedate, and they don't seem to be frightened of people, which must make them easy targets for poachers.
The trip to release the animals was something of a circus: I don't think my former colleagues at Maine's fish and wildlife agency would approve of the FA's wildlife handling techniques. Lacking any kind of training or proper equipment for handling the wildlife, the rangers make do with common sense and the tools at hand: rice sacks, twine, electrical cable.... The animals were seized at night, so they were kept in a pen at the FA bas camp until the next afternoon. By then, the python and one of the monitor lizards seem to have escaped. Actually, it was pretty clear that the python would escape, since there isn't an enclosure designed for keeping snakes, so they let it go at the edge of the driveway at camp. This may not bode well for the camp cat's newborn kittens, but maybe the rat population in the dorms will be brought under control. Anyway, the next afternoon, we loaded the back of the FA pickup truck with 3 people (including me), 3 chickens (to resupply the ranger station in the middle of the forest), the remaining monitor lizard (tied to the truck with electrical cable), and two sacks, one of pangolins, and one of turtles. The chickens were not at all happy with being tethered within range of the monitor lizard's 6-inch tongue. Occasionally, as we drove along, the lizard would flick its tongue over the chickens, which set them into an absolute blind panic.
The turtles were released into a nearby pond using an unorthodox technique known as the "turtle toss." (Someone lobbed them, one by one, about 10 meters down the bank into the pond.) We did see them swimming away, so hopefully they weren't too traumatized by this treatment.
Getting to see and touch those endangered animals was an amazing, once in a lifetime experience. Upon reflection, I think it's likely that some of those species will go extinct during my lifetime.
That's especially likely if the SBCA does not survive. Its legal framework is somewhat tenuous...more on that in the next entry. In the meantime,here are some links, if you want to know more about where I am.
You can see a description of the SBCA here: http://www.wcs.org/international/Asia/Cambodia/seimabiodiversity
and see pictures of some of the rare animals I've seen here:
Green peafowl (I see these in the trees while running at dusk sometimes): www.pheasant.org.uk/cons_SEAsia_Green-peafowl.htm
Black-shanked douc langur (I also sometimes see these guys in the treetops while running or driving in late afternoon. They make amazing 10 meter leaps from tree to tree.): http://assets.panda.org/downloads/5gafactsheete.pdf
Gaur (the largest species of wild cattle. On a late afternoon drive, we saw one peeking through the foliage just like this, except the one we saw was a big bull.): http://www.thejunglelook.com/gallery/Misc-Mammals/CRW_7707_gaur
Pangolin (how fake do these things look?): http://www.cites.org/gallery/species/mammal/chinese_pangolin.html
I will upload my photos once I get back to civilization.