Cambodia

Combidian Farmers Photo
The spread of agriculture and human activity has resulted in habitat loss.
©Eleanor Briggs
Combodia Ruins Photo
Prey Veng temple in semi-ever-green forest in Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary, Cambodia
©Hugo Rarney
Sarus Crane Photo
Sarus Crane is among the species that WCS monitors.
©Eleanor Brigss

In the late 1950s, explorer Charles Wharton described Cambodia as a country rich in wildlife, writing that parts of the landscape were second only to Africa with regard to the vast distribution and numbers of big-game animals. Just a few years later, the country was plunged into more than three decades of civil strife, including the devastating era of the Khmer Rouge.

By the mid 1990s, a semblance of peace had returned to Cambodia. WCS and other organizations helped the government implement a series of biological surveys across the country, which clarified which areas were most important to conserve. They also revealed a land that was still rich with flora and fauna, home to rare mammal and bird species such as tigers, Asian elephants, vultures, and ibises. Cambodia’s infrastructure suffered extensively during the years of conflict, however, and poor access to roads and markets meant that many villages were isolated for up to six months of the year. Poverty was rampant, and local communities depended heavily on natural resources for their livelihood.

After completing the surveys, WCS began working in partnership with several Cambodian government agencies in three landscapes: Tonle Sap lake and floodplain, the dry dipterocarp forests of the Northern Plains, and the evergreen forests and grasslands of Southern Mondulkiri.

Fast Facts

  • Populations of six critically endangered birds inhabit WCS-supported sites in Cambodia—the white-shouldered ibis, giant ibis, Bengal florican, and three vulture species.
  • Southern Mondulkiri may be one of only two places in Asia that contains eight species of cat, including the tiger.
  • Southern Mondulkiri is also one of Cambodia’s last strongholds for elephants; recent surveys have tallied about 120 individuals living here.
  • The most important waterbird colony on Southeast Asia’s mainland is at Prek Toal Core in the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve, where new protection measures have boosted populations of some key species by tenfold.

Challenges

As economic development and prosperity spread across Cambodia, new roads increase access into wild lands. This, combined with poor land and resource management, has precipitated an uncontrolled influx of outsiders who have seized the opportunity to cut, clear, and claim land. Previously remote areas have been rapidly deforested, and the livelihoods of indigenous communities have become insecure as their natural resource bases shrink. Throughout Cambodia, forests are also being cleared on a large scale to make way for plantation crops like rubber. Some of these crops are being cultivated in sections of previously protected areas. The country’s extractive industries (especially mining and oil) are also expanding and could impact some sites where WCS currently works.

Similarly, lawlessness and demand from outside markets has caused hunting, fishing, and timber harvesting to intensify dramatically, thereby threatening the resources themselves. Illegal hunting, logging, and unsustainable extraction of non-timber forest products also threaten both wildlife populations and the livelihoods of indigenous communities in many rural areas.

The scale of Cambodia’s illegal wildlife trade is enormous, driven by international demand for meat and traditional medicines in neighboring countries such as China, Vietnam, and Thailand. The trade leaves large areas of apparently healthy forest empty of wildlife, with significant populations of many species surviving only in extremely remote areas, or those protected by intensive conservation measures.

WCS Responds

Through almost a decade of cooperation, WCS has built close relationships with the three government agencies responsible for forestry, fisheries, and the environment. The greatest threats to conservation in Cambodia can only be addressed by decisive action at the highest levels of government. We work extensively with these agencies to build political support for conservation and help determine natural resource management strategies, and this underpins all our work at the field level.

WCS field activities in Cambodia focus on law enforcement, community engagement, and long-term monitoring and research. Government law enforcement patrols target major crimes such as logging, large-scale land grabbing, and commercial hunting. Team leaders come from the Forestry Administration or the Ministry of Environment, with military police and border police as team members. WCS provides funding, training, and technical advice on methods to monitor crime and confiscate poaching equipment.

WCS works with communities to strengthen their role in land-use planning as a means to negotiate management agreements with local indigenous communities. WCS is also testing potential options for supporting local livelihoods that are compatible with biodiversity conservation. These include village-based ecotourism and incentive payments for eco-friendly agricultural produce. Hopefully in the near future, carbon credits will be used as a direct incentive for forest protection. WCS is currently developing carbon-financing projects in both Southern Mondulkiri and the Northern Plains.

A primary strength of WCS is the research it conducts to guide management action. Our wildlife research includes both exploratory work on single species, such as royal terrapins and vultures, and large-scale annual biodiversity monitoring that gauges the long-term success of conservation activities.

WCS Projects

Birding in Tmatboey, Cambodia

One of Cambodia’s poorest regions is rich in rare birdlife—in particular, the giant ibis and its cousin the white-shouldered ibis. Decades of violent conflict and a remote location kept naturalists and birdwatchers away. But now, birders travel from around the world in the hopes of seeing the ibises and other majestic species.

From the Newsroom

An Unlikely Bird in an Unlikely PlaceJune 26, 2013

A new species of bird turns out to have been hiding in plain sight: in Cambodia’s capital city limits of Phnom Penh, home to 1.5 million people.

Last Bastion for Asia's VulturesJune 25, 2012

With vulture numbers drastically down across the Asian continent, scientists hone in on protecting Cambodian populations, one of the last hopes for these critically endangered birds.

Wild Haven of CambodiaApril 9, 2012

Birdwatchers from across Asia and beyond flock to Cambodia for a glimpse of two of the world's rarest birds: the giant ibis and its cousin the white-shouldered ibis. The birds’ nesting grounds sit at the outskirts of Tmatboey, a rural village where WCS has worked with the community to develop an eco-tourism project.

Bats Are Not Scary, Says Scientist at Bronx ZooNovember 1, 2011

As the namesake of a new species of Southeast Asian  bat, WCS's Joe Walston says that these winged mammals are the good guys of nature. Bug-eating bats aid in the pollination of plants and trees, and are the main consumer of crop pests and mosquitoes.

A Census for ScavengersJune 2, 2011

WCS begins our annual tally of vulture populations in Cambodia. After last year’s record numbers, hopes for these birds are on the rise.

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