Saving Siamese Crocodiles, Dragon Fish Equals Income in the Cardamom Forest
You’ve been transported to the last remnant of mountainous forest in Southeast Asia, 988,421 acres (400,000 hectares) of splendid tropical trees hiding Pangolins, Sun bears, tigers, dragon fish and the singular Siamese Crocodile (Crocodylus siamensis). A spice from this area is used in Indian tea, Finnish pastries and Asian cooking.
The region is home of the Cardamom Forest, and it is under threat because the local communities survive by employing slash-and-burn agriculture to plant rice and to trap wildlife species and sell them for the Chinese medicinal market. For many years, residents had little option other than destroying this forest.
Conservation International (CI) is working with six communities around the Cardamom Forest to give them another option, and to make conservation desirable and beneficial to them. Through conservation agreements, these communities have agreed to cease slash and burn practices, stop hunting and setting snares for wildlife and instead patrol the areas to bar outside hunters and protect the nesting sites of the Critically Endangered Siamese Crocodile.
Conservation Stewards Protect Land and Livelihoods
CI’s Conservation Stewards Program is all about communities taking responsibility for conservation.
"The CSP program can help us reconcile sustainable conservation management of these areas with the development of improved livelihoods for the communities living within the areas," says Indo-Burma Regional Director David Emmett.
Cambodia County Director Seng Bunra says that the program has "changed the attitude" of the community and turned them into "conservation supporters."
In return, CI and the Forestry Administration of Cambodia are providing concrete benefits: Buffaloes and mechanical mules to plow and restore old rice paddy fields; teacher salaries to enable year-round instruction; and salaries, training and equipment for patrollers, so that working for conservation is a paying job.
IN PHOTOS: Working to Conserve the Cardamon Forest
"These benefits are not charity, they are not welfare," says Patricia Zurita, senior director of the Conservation Stewards Program. "They are the result of a fair, transparent and highly participatory negotiation process in which the community agreed to prioritize these benefits and CI agreed to provide them, so conservation would come at no cost."
Zurita says these benefits are changing the equation of conservation in the Cardamoms: Protection and care for the environment equals income and improvements in community life.
The agreements are enabling CI and their partners in the Cambodian government to protect the forests while empowering local communities to conserve their resources for their children and grandchildren – without sacrificing the development of these resources and a sustainable standard of living.
"The conservation agreement could result in numbers of wildlife species increased, the forest well protected and the abandoned paddy field restored," said Mrs. Prieng Than, a villager in the Pralay commune.
Crocs and Dragon Fish
The first agreement was signed in 2006 with the 73 families of the Chum Noab community to protect 20,000 hectares. Now agreements cover 150,000 hectares of Cardamom forest, including the nests of the Siamese Crocodile, the most threatened of all crocodiles. In 2007, 23 baby crocs hatched, at the time representing 10 percent of the global population in the wild.
The 2006 agreement also supported protection of the endangered dragon fish (Scleropages formosus).
"You know that due to the patrol team, they said that not only the number of dragon fish are increasing, but other fishes in the pond are increasing as well," said Cheth Thy, first deputy chief of Thma Don Pov commune.
CI and its partners are scaling up efforts to use the conservation agreement tool to go beyond the Cardamom Forest into other areas in the country that are significant for biodiversity conservation. CI is building a $2 million conservation endowment to support these communities in the long run, so that these treasures – and the real "crocs" – are saved forever.
"I am very happy seeing that CI has supported our local communities in our district and I wish to have such support for a long time," said Siev Saban, the deputy district governor.