The wild of Cambodian dry forests - by Tep Asnarith, WWF
It was inside the Cambodian dry forests where Sophoan, Porny, Soeun and Asnarith, all from WWF Cambodia’s head office, spent four nights in early December to participate in a team building workshop, organized annually by the Srepok Wilderness Area Project (SWAP) this time at its Mreuch headquarter, as they respectively gave presentations about WWF and financial policy and guidelines, and in particular to see for themselves the beauty of the unique Cambodian dry forests and the magnificent wildlife it harbors. The forests are located in the east of the country in Mondulkiri province and are one of the WWF’s important protected areas, called Mondulkiri Protected Forest (MPF).All of them joined WWF within the least one or two years and used to hear project staff describe and tell stories about the area, project activities, things that happen in and around the landscape. They had only seen the forest and wildlife from photos and other visual materials. This was the time they were able to admire these significant flora and fauna of the Cambodian Eastern Plains for themselves. “These forests are absolutely splendid! It is so exciting to be here in the middle of such a wonderful landscape,” said Soeun, former admin and finance manager. “What we use to hear about the area and see from photos has almost nothing to compare with what we see and learn in reality. Tall canopy trees with similar spacing between and diverse grass types in the ground layer make this whole area the most incredible forest landscape I have ever seen,” he said. “We now know what we are working hard everyday for and the reason why WWF is making great efforts to protect this beautiful dry forest and the globally significant wildlife it supports. Also we understand better why we help the Cambodian government and local communities sustainably manage these valuable natural resources, on which Cambodian generations including ethnic Phnong depend for many years,” he added.
Dry forest, or deciduous dipterocarp forest, consists of large tropical hardwood trees that are long-lived and can grow up to 30 meters high. It has an open canopy and grassy understorey. Despite the name, the dry forest is wet too because of its incredible rainy season where 90% of the annual rain falls in just seven months (May-November). Many of these trees are prized for their timber. The fruits of dipterocarp trees have conspicuous long wings (sepals) to aid in dispersal by wind.Despite years of war and isolation, the Cambodian dry forests are still relatively intact and provide home to one of the most diverse large mammal communities in Asia, including key species such as Tiger, Gaur, Banteng, Wild Water Buffalo, Asian Elephant, Leopard, as well as bird species such as Great Hornbill, Green Peafowl, White-rumped and Red Headed Vultures. According to the most recent research as part of wildlife monitoring annually conducted by the SWAP team, all of these bird species have been directly sighted, while tracks of Tiger, Leopard and other large mammals have also been recorded. At the same time, the result of the research confirmed the presence of Eld’s Deer and Douc Langur in the area. “Look there, three of them, those are Eld’s Deer!,” Sophoan, finance officer, shouted from the back of an elephant during a morning ride into the landscape as she wanted other colleagues to follow what she had spotted. “The mahout told us that those Eld’s Deer we have just seen were all males and that we were lucky to see them during such a short elephant ride. Project rangers and mahouts normally spend longer time to be able to sight wildlife,” she said. “Beside Eld’s Deer, we also saw wild pigs, around ten of them running so fast trying to escape from us and our elephants, as well as birds coming to small ponds for water,” Porny, communications officer, described to other colleagues when returning to Mreuch office after she dismounted from the back of the elephant.
The connection of these forests with one of the important Mekong river tributaries, the Srepok river, makes the whole area one of the most outstanding habitats in the region for large waterbird populations. Its seasonal wetlands provide breeding grounds for threatened species including the White-shouldered Ibis, Black-necked Stork, Giant Ibis, Sarus Crane and Greater and Lesser Adjutant. “Based on the results of our latest research, the project counts significant numbers of waterbirds including 19 Sarus Crane, 18 Giant Ibis, as well as 74 Woolly-necked Storks,” said Sopheak, senior SWAP officer. While wild cattle, large cats and birds still roam the surrounding plains, the Srepok river itself stands out as special and unique in the Greater Mekong Area as it boasts some subpopulations of at least 140 Mekong fish species including the 2.5-foot giant carp, a close relative of the Mekong giant catfish, and hosts an immense diversity of aquatic life including the critically endangered Siamese crocodile. The exotic fish the river teems with are a very important food and water source and constitute in the river catchment nearly 90% of the animal protein supply of the local people. Attempting to retain their cultural and agricultural practices, a remarkable diversity of minority ethnic groups, including Phnong, Tampuan, Kraol, Thmon, Jarai, Kreung and Stieng, as well as Khmer, Cham, Chinese and Lao living throughout the Cambodian Eastern Plains landscape, are heavily reliant on the area's natural resources, including forests where they collect non-timber forest products. The Phnong is the largest group. And like many groups who live in the dry forests in Mondulkiri province, they collect liquid resin from certain trees. Natural resources support development in many ways. Ecosystem services, like the provision of clean surface water from protected upper watersheds, are an undervalued, but vital benefit of healthy natural areas. Local people rely on plants, animals and fish for subsistence needs, and ensuring the sustainability of these harvests is the first step towards greater development. Some kinds of natural resources also can be sustainably managed for commercial uses. Nature tourism has great potential in the dry forests if wildlife populations recover. In many of the more open patches of the dry forest mosaic landscape, key wildlife species could be viewed as easily as in the great game parks of Africa, India, and Sri Lanka, if their numbers were restored. Together with government and NGO partners, WWF is working towards finding a balance between development and conservation, for the long-term benefit of the people, plants and animals which share this globally significant ecoregion. “WWF Cambodia’s SWAP is implementing a very successful Southern African approach to protected area management in the MPF in Cambodia’s Eastern Plains landscape. The project’s main objectives are to protect and conserve plants, country’s rare and endangered wild animals including large mammals and large water birds, and water sources; while at the same time promote sustainable use of natural resources and ecotourism,” Sopheak said. Link: WWF