Guns & Guards for now... (on patrol in the Cambodian Cardamoms)
By John Roberts
2 March 2014 02:54:00
It was a Chinese botanist that once said to me “Without elephants a South East Asian forest does not make sense”.
We know other researchers working to discover the elephants’ effect on certain species of plants - it's pain staking poo picking work because one of elephants’ major roles in the forest is to keep seeds in their stomachs for 12 - 36 hours, move them away from the parent tree and deposit them in their own ball of fertiliser and the sunlight of a newly created mini-clearing.
But not elephants alone; all the animals, bugs, slithery things & feathered friends that make up an ecosystem help keep the wider forest healthy when everything’s in balance - herbivores keep certain plants in check while propagating others, predators keep herbivores in check. Bugs & slithery things keep the leaf litter recycled and the birds fed, birds move smaller seeds too & provide food for those darned carnivores again.
I’m not sure of any long term studies but here in South East Asia where the vast majority of forest that you get to walk in has been hunted & trapped for so long that the warm, heart beating, furry & feathery things are gone, where the big trees have been taken down (which, again, is everywhere easily accessible) the regrowth must be missing the biological services provided by the mammals & seed dispersers, things are out of whack & this must affect the forest in ways we may not even be able to discern for 100 years.
This may not be as scientific an argument as I’d like to make it but I’ve been blessed with a life that has allowed to get my boots on the ground, my hammock between trees, in many of South East Asia’s forests & so-called forested areas. So, anecdotally, the eerie silence of a green place in Laos & Thailand - with old trees gone & no sound for birdsong or rustling of rodents - can haunt me perhaps because of the hours I’ve put in in places like Chitwan in Nepal, where I started this Asian journey, and still a truly natural ecosystem once you’re in the core area, where there’s not a second of silence and the jungle is always alive.
So when an organisation as well known as Wildlife Alliance invites you to look around a corner of their world, walk you up and down the jungle and talk to their people, tell you of the great work they’re doing elsewhere but "here we need your help".
When you see an ecosystem logged some time ago, benighted by hunting but not yet destroyed, yes, rhinos & tigers gone but other mammals in place, used by elephants as a corridor and predators at least with Asiatic Wild Dog to form an apex (& probably clouded and other leopards around).
When you see an ecosystem that is the only remaining link between two immense, heavily protected by the Cambodian Ministry of the Environment, jungle eco-systems, where the other ‘old’ links are now rubber or sugar or cassava plantations. An ecosystem that runs from the mountains, through some dry grassland plains, through the mangroves to the sea.
But when, on your recce, you also see hunters, snares, nets, motorbike tracks, hunting dog tracks, evidence of non-timber forest product collection and timber forest product collection to boot. You see, when the neighbouring forests are put under plantation the animals in those forests are killed or captured but the humans who make a living from collecting them, once spread thin, are concentrated in whatever forest remains and their small scale hunting, once relatively harmless, begins to destroy the last remaining ecosystems.
When you see all of this and know how rare it is to see something like this with animals still in it - &, if the dhole are surviving everything else must be at least partially in place - and they ask you for help what can you do?
Suffice to say, our parent company Minor International, together with our Foundation, found enough money to build, staff and equip two ranger stations for the wildlife protecting team of the Ministry of Environment and Wildlife Alliance.
The first rangers, recruited from the local villages and some of whom who’s incomes had derived from denuding the forest now comes from protecting it, came on site on January the 2nd this year, the first ranger station is built on a confluence of two rivers, the second will be down by the sea - across our own small mountain range.
The work has begun establishing a perimeter, lifting the snares, disabling the traps, warning people gently that the forest is now protected and that the wildlife is sacrosanct.
Already otters have come back to the confluence and larger birds, pheasants and peafowl have gravitated toward the ranger station in whose vicinity they are not nightly disturbed by huntsmen.
I was lucky enough to go on a short patrol with the rangers, walking from the station up into ‘our’ mountains, saw giant hornbills and heard two different families of gibbons.
Of course we don't just set off at random, even I knew this with the SMART patrol training I've seen up in China and we're sponsoring in Thailand, each patrol is heavily, almost militarily planned, GPS's always on trace and anything of interest plotted, reported and reinvestigated...
...the Rangers gave us a talk about the work they've already done in the month they've been on site, a display of confiscated wares (though most of the snares have been recycled and are used as guy ropes for the tents & tarp.s until we get the second ranger station built)...
...talking with a fisherman, ensuring he plays by the 'new' rules - fishing for personal consumption only, traditional methods are allowed but nothing that cuts the entire river & certainly no explosives - oh, & don't disturb the otters!
...before the patrol everyone lines up for a group photo....
...off goes the boat patrol, it is their job today to patrol the coastal inlets and camp one night before boating back in (our donation has included the provision of a couple of boats - this big patrol monster and a speed boat), I elected to the walking patrol...
...we crossed the river & set off down an old logging track, out into the first of many dry grassland naturally open areas....
...a reminder of conflict, B52 bomb craters are now wildlife hotspots as they hold water even this late in the dry season (this one had tracks of wild boar & deer)...
...a reminder of the logging days, even deep in thick forest we come across makeshift bridges made of good timber (all washed out) originally to allow the extraction of even more timber, more recently used by those looking to take non-timber forest products out by bullock cart. We leave them washed out - no problem for foot patrols with a little balance!
...& another one...
..a little higher up in the hills the forest tracks are less used, you (literally) begin to curse the vines that tug your feet and chest height thorns that need to be ducked under, some perfect elephant territory up here - & needs some more use by them to clear paths for us! We begin to hear the gibbons singing in the hills to our left..
...higher still in the hills, Giant Hornbills flying overhead, given away by the distinctive sound of wind through thier flight feathers, gibbons still singing on all side, we stop for lunch in a now-dry riverbed...
...after some more climbing we reach the edge of 'our' concession, the area that the Ministry of Environment and Wildlife Alliance protect...
...& immediately the forest stops, we walk on to our vehicle pick-up...
...there was a movie they showed us in school, I forget the name, about an Amazonian tribe fighting to keep their homeland forest, as I walk on towards our car I feel a little like them. Having spent the last few days surrounded by shade, forest & moving water, the last hours climbing through tugging, scratching, sticking jungle it feels somewhat bewildering to be walking through the sun baked barren landscape.
We come over a ridge and there, before us, is the cleared plantation with every native tree taken and replaced with sapling rubber, the boundary of the concession we are helping protect through Wildlife Alliance and the Cambodian Ministry of Environment obvious in the distance and the complete contrast between 'our' jungle & 'their' plantation is clear for all to see.
Cambodia, indeed all of South East Asis, needs development and will need plantations, so it is even more important that we protect the strategic little bits of it that fall into our hands.
At Minor and with Wildlife Alliance and the Cambodian Government we're working at turning this from purely a guns and guards project to a hearts and minds project as soon as possible, for now we've found the funding for the establishment, manning and all equipment of the ranger stations together with the running costs for one year.
Let's hope we can extend it so twenty years from now I can write "long term studies show" the positive impact of keeping wildlife in a forest and involving local communities in conservation.
Flirting with charming two-ton beauties and playing with jumbo babies, our Elephant Guru's blog introduces our colourful cast of gentle giants.
- Guns & Guards for now... (on patrol in the Cambodian Cardamoms)
2 Mar 2014
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3 Jan 2014
- Denial is not (just) a river in Egypt
25 Sep 2013
- Conservation: Complexity, Constraint, and Community
20 Sep 2013
- Brave New World (or why you should support your local trekking camp)
12 Sep 2013