PHNOM PENH May 2, 2016 - In a bold move to safeguard its environment, Cambodia's government have signed a sub-decree to create five new protected forests, spanning 1 million hectares— bringing a total of 25% of the country's total land area under protection.
Tracy Farrell, regional director of Conservation International's (CI) Greater Mekong program, applauded the move saying, 'These sites represent the most important forests in Cambodia for biodiversity conservation and support of human wellbeing, and if managed correctly could lead to a paradigm shift in Cambodia's development pathway.'
The five new protected forests — Kravanh Khang Tbong in the Southern Cardamom mountains, Veun Sai, Siem Pang, Prey Lang and Prey Preah Roka — were selected following research to understand their importance to human well-being, and their values for biodiversity and carbon.
The news marks a historic moment for Cambodia, and for Southeast Asia, particularly of note given the significant pressures placed on the world's remaining forests. Cambodia impressively retains between 40-50% of its forest cover, compared to 33% in the United States and only 13% in England, however, the country has one of the highest rates of forest loss in the world, dropping to 48% of forest cover in 2014 from 60% in 2009. Illegal logging, unsustainable forestry management practices and demand for timber all threaten Cambodia's forests.
'Formal protection for these areas will boost efforts by CI and others to ensure these landscapes can continue to provide critical ecosystem services to Cambodians long into the future,' Farrell said.
Cambodia's forests provide habitat for 800 globally threatened species including Asian elephants, pangolin, Siamese crocodiles and sun bears. They are also intrinsically linked to the vitality of the water system which feeds important economic activities such as agriculture and aquaculture downstream, and vital to the nation's food security. In fact, 80% of Cambodia's 15 million people live in rural areas and rely directly on forests and waterways for their livelihoods.
CI's conservation efforts include extensive work toward this level of protection in two of the newly protected forests, Veun Sai and Prey Lang, to combat deforestation and support sustainable livelihoods. CI has also worked in the Cardamom Mountain range for over fifteen years, which saw the area protected in the range increased under the new announcement.
The Cambodian government have committed to carrying out a landscape scale approach to conservation to ensure connectivity of the greater ecosystem. 'This is their vision, and setting these new areas aside is a strong sign of their commitment to executing that,' said Farrell.
Since 2011, CI has worked in Veun Sai in Cambodia's remote Ratanakiri province funding research and conservation efforts towards its protected area status. Together with the Cambodian Forestry Administration, CI supports the defense of the area from illegal logging through a ranger program and non-timber-based economic development. Veun Sai's 55,000-hectare (136,000-acre) landscape swiftly shifts from tall, dense forests to flat expanses of grasslands and marsh. This variety in habitat supports remarkable species diversity, including a species that was only discovered in 2010: the northern yellow-cheeked crested gibbon. Thought to be endangered, research suggests there may be as many as 1,500 individuals in Veun Sai, likely the largest population of the species globally. Coupled gibbons sing territory-marking "duets" at daybreak — spine-tingling calls that can be heard a kilometer away. CI have been working with local communities to build an ecotourism program around these animals, presently the only opportunity in Cambodia for visitors to spend time with wild gibbons. Increasing illegal logging in the area has been threatening the gibbons' habitat. However, the new protected status of Veun Sai will hopefully stem this tide, connecting it with the adjacent Virachey National Park, and providing new opportunities to build sustainable community livelihoods linked to conservation.
Spanning four provinces, Prey Lang is the largest and most important lowland evergreen forest left in Southeast Asia, home to 55 threatened species and over 340 villages. It's also the most carbon rich forest in Cambodia, making it a critical landscape in our global plight against climate change. Situated to the east of the Tonle Sap lake, it complements the Cardamom mountain range as one of the two main watersheds for the lake, which is known as Cambodia's "fish factory." Prey Lang supports almost half of the country's bird population, one-third of its bat species and a host of threatened primates and mammals.
Prey Lang is also plagued by illegal logging. To date, protecting the forest from illegal activity has fallen to the forest's inhabitants, many of whom are indigenous. The forest is home to a large number of valuable resin trees which, amongst a host of other non-timber forest products, provide a sustainable income to forest inhabitants.
CI has worked in this area since 2007, beginning with a full REDD+ feasibility study, an initial biodiversity survey, and a first draft sub-decree for Prey Lang's protection which was developed with the Forestry Administration but never signed by the government.
More recently, the USAID Supporting Forests and Biodiversity Project, implemented by Winrock International, has focused strongly on Prey Lang, engaging CI and other partners in moving this cause forward. CI has also been funded by the project to undertake a larger scale biodiversity study and begin engaging with communities to explore sustainable livelihood options.
The Cardamom Mountains are the primary watershed for one-third of Cambodia and represent CI's longest standing investment in Cambodia. Working with Cambodia's Department of Forestry and Wildlife, CI was instrumental in having the Central Cardamoms Protected Forest (CCPF) - 405,000 hectares (more than 1 million acres) of pristine forest - established as Cambodia's first protected area in 2002. Earlier this year CI launched Cambodia's first conservation Trust Fund to finance ongoing management of the CCPF.
This new declaration protects an additional 410,000 hectares of forest in the south of the mountain range, more than doubling the size of the conserved area and connecting the ridge of the Cardamoms to the coastal mangroves. This is fantastic news for the 54 threatened species in the area, particularly Asian elephants that depend on un-fragmented habitat for survival.
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About Conservation International (CI) – Building upon a strong foundation of science, partnership and field demonstration, CI empowers societies to responsibly and sustainably care for nature and its global biodiversity to promote the long-term well-being of people. Founded in 1987 and marking its 25th anniversary in 2012, CI is headquartered in the Washington, D.C. area. CI employs 900 staff in nearly 30 countries on four continents and works with more than 1,000 partners around the world. For more information, please see www.conservation.org or visit us on Facebook and Twitter.