Sitha Som is learning early on that his job is like looking for a needle in a haystack.
Twenty five year-old Som leads a group of aspiring biologists on monthly explorations of the Cambodian countryside in hopes of finding a live tortoise or freshwater turtle to study. They endure multiple days—sometimes weeks—of walking for miles, wading rivers and streams, and climbing mountains.
With many turtles worldwide on the brink of extinction, the chances of finding one are slim. Scientists estimate at least 40 percent of all turtle and tortoise species face an immediate risk. Nearly three-quarters of Asian freshwater turtle and tortoise species are threatened.
Som understands the odds, so a successful find makes the pain well worth the effort.
“Even though the job is quite hard, we still have fun,” he laughs. “It’s a good job to be saving turtles.”
Thanks to the work of Som’s team, his country can lay renewed claim to a handful of species. In March, the students helped capture and release an Endangered Cantor’s giant softshell turtle (Pelochelys cantorii), last seen in the wild four years ago. A 2004 survey of the Central Cardamom Protected Forest turned up an Endangered impressed tortoise (Manouria impressa), a species scientists never knew existed in Cambodia. The team also discovered other species new to the southwest region.
In recognition of these tremendous contributions to science, Som’s team won its third consecutive Conservation Leadership Programme Award in 2007. The program, sponsored in part by Conservation International (CI), has provided financial support to more than 300 student-led research projects in 87 countries. It aims to produce the world’s next generation of conservationists like Som.
“It is crucial that Cambodia nurture a cadre of bright young conservationists who will become tomorrow’s decision-makers,” says CI Wildlife Biologist David Emmett, who assists the team. “Programs like this give them the skills and global experience they need to help their country develop in a manner that does not severely impact its environment and biodiversity.”
Som grew up in Takeo province about 50 miles south of Phnom Penh. The son of farmers, Som had never been to the forest as a child and readily admits knowing little about turtles until a few years ago.
In 2004, he obtained an environmental science degree from the Royal University of Phnom Penh. During his final year, Som wrote a thesis about threats to turtles after hearing that people were collecting them for food and trade. He wanted to find out how turtles survived in protected areas. It was a subject that brought him in contact with CI and, for the first time—the forest.
“He immediately impressed me with his intelligence, kind approach to wildlife, and dedication to conservation of Cambodia’s natural heritage,” says Emmett. “He clearly had a lot of potential.”
With Emmett’s encouragement, Som joined five other students conducting turtle research at CI-Cambodia. The team had received its first award, and CI was providing office space and technical assistance. Together, they traveled to the field regularly.
“I found the forest to be quite interesting, although at first I thought it was scary,” Som confesses.
It’s not hard to see why. During a weeks-long trip to the Central Cardamoms, the team twice stumbled upon armed hunters and loggers on a mountainside. Fortunately, accompanied by forest rangers, part of an ongoing arrangement between CI and the Cambodian Forestry Administration, they escaped unharmed.
Today, he misses going to the forest. Som’s valuable experience has taken him around the world.
In January, he participated in a community-led project to protect a highly threatened turtle in Madagascar and returned eager to try out a new turtle trap design. Som has also taught university students in Vietnam about turtle protection and received scientific training in California.
Between trips, Som’s team is developing a turtle field guide for Cambodia, as well as protocol to help government rangers safely release turtles confiscated on their watch.
Now the team’s work has a greater emphasis on community involvement. It has begun teaching villagers how to identify and protect turtle populations around their neighborhoods.
In just three short years, Som has found himself in a mentoring position. He’s still getting used to it.
“I feel very honored and humbled. The people consider me a specialist, and students often ask for my help.” Som adds shyly, “Sometimes, I feel a little bit proud also.”