Proposed Border Highway Threatens Wildlife in Protected Cambodian Forest

By Roseanne Gerin
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cambodia-silvered-langur-monkeys-mondulkiri-province-jan14-2011.jpg Silvered langur monkeys climb on a tree along a river in Mondulkiri province in eastern Cambodia, Jan. 14, 2011.

A new border crossing between Vietnam and Cambodia will drive certain endangered animal species closer to extinction if it is built through a protected forest in Cambodia, according to an international environmental group that urges scrapping the highway plan.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has called for the 36-kilometer (24-mile) Srea Ampom-Kbal Damrei proposed asphalt road and border crossing project to be cancelled to protect the most endangered species of the Mondulkiri Protected Forest in eastern Cambodia’s Mondulkiri Province, the country’s largest but most sparsely populated province which borders three Vietnamese provinces.

The 4,300-square-kilometer (1,660-square-mile) area is home to 23 mammal, bird, reptile and tree species listed as endangered or critically endangered, WWF said in a news release last month. Many of them have become extinct elsewhere in Southeast Asia because of habitat loss and hunting for illegal wildlife products.

The forest is also the proposed site for the Cambodian government’s plans to reintroduce tiger populations.

“Mondulkiri Protected Forest is a treasure trove of biodiversity and has been identified by the Cambodian government as the site of a planned tiger reintroduction,” said Sam Ath Chhith, country director of WWF-Cambodia. “Unfortunately, both the spectacular biodiversity and the tiger reintroduction are in jeopardy if this border crossing and road are built through the core zone of the protected forest.”

The new border crossing and road will seriously fragment the habitat of the 23 species in Mondulkiri Protected Forest, while providing little economic benefit, WWF said.

Some of the most endangered animal and plant species include the banteng, a species of wild cattle found in Southeast Asia which has declined by more than 80 percent in the past half-century and is now restricted to small populations in Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Other endangered species at risk in the Mondulkiri Protected Forest are the giant ibis, Siamese crocodile, slender-billed vulture, Eld’s deer, dipterocarpus alatus tropical hardwood tree, silvered langur (monkey), masked finfoot (water fowl) and elongated tortoise. Many of these species have become endangered because of hunting, deforestation and habitat loss.

The WWF said it is backing the Cambodia’s government efforts to reintroduce tigers to the protected forest, where breeding populations no longer exist because of habitat loss, poaching and loss of their prey base.

“The key to ensuring a successful tiger reintroduction is to keep the landscape as intact and unfragmented as possible, which means no border crossing and road.” Tom Gray, manager of species conservation for WWF Greater Mekong, said in the news release.

Forest is vital for villagers

The WWF also issued a call in late January for the cancellation of the proposed road and border crossing claiming that it would damage the Mondulkiri Protected Forest—a UNESCO World Heritage site candidate.

The organization also said the protected forest is vital for communities that rely on its ecosystem to provide them fresh water, food and livelihoods, but that the road would not improve access to any existing villages.

WWF has said that the reintroduction of tigers could be a potential tourism driver generating long-term revenue for local communities and the provincial government, but warned that the proposed road could derail the tiger restoration program and increase wildlife trafficking between Cambodia and Vietnam.

“There is simply too much to lose and very little to gain if this road is built,” Sam Ath Chhith said in January. “Mondulkiri Protected Forest is without question a world class ecosystem, and it should remain exactly what its name says—‘protected’ for future generations of both people and wildlife.”

Donor countries have contributed $10 million to protect the area since the government designated it a protected forest in July 2002, according to an article in the Khmer Times last month.

The article noted that the proposed road would cut through a 19-kilometer (12-mile) special ecosystem zone designated for the tiger-reintroduction program inside the protected forest.

Moul Path, a WWF manager based in Mondulkiri, told the news organization that he believed the road was being built to facilitate logging because the province already had four existing checkpoints along its 210-kilometer border with Vietnam.

The article went on to say that Interior Minister Sar Kheng and Mondulkiri province authorities had assured donor countries and conservation groups that the road would not be built though the  protected forest.

But the Khmer Times cited leaked memos in which Sar Kheng had written to Foreign Minister Hor Namhong last December about the establishment of a border crossing at Kbal Damrei on the forest’s southeastern border to link the checkpoint with Sre Ampom to the south.

A second leaked memo indicated that Sar Kheng ordered the governor of Mondulkiri province to arrange an official inauguration of the Kbal Damrei border checkpoint and provincial authorities to plan for infrastructure development there.


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