Cambodia, one of Southeast Asia's most biologically intact nations, has emerged from civil war to reveal a stunning topography that is quickly garnering attention from scientists around the world.
In an early 2007 survey of Cambodia's Mekong River, scientists found one of the world's largest freshwater turtles, the Cantor's giant softshell, that was previously thought to have gone extinct. Field explorations of the southwestern Cardamom Mountains, considered the largest intact wilderness in Asia, have also turned up amphibian species new to both science and the country. These are just a few reasons Cambodia has become an important part of efforts to protect the remaining fragments of the Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot.
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For decades, the Khmer Rouge controlled many parts of the Cardamoms. Its dense forest spans a million hectares and protects the headwaters of major rivers that feed nearby rice fields and fishing grounds. Loggers and poachers stayed away from these areas out of fear, until the fierce conflict ended in the late 1990s. Since then, improvements in roads and safety have opened up possibilities to study the region more in-depth, uncovering new plants and animals in the process.
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The mountains also attract poachers searching for valuable species like pangolins, bears, otter, and turtles. Hunters make top dollar by selling these threatened animals at illegal wildlife markets around the world. Due to the relative abundance and diversity of species that still remain here, Cambodia has become a prime target for the booming multibillion dollar wildlife trade, which has already wiped out populations of these species in neighboring countries.
In the Mekong River area, hydroelectric dam construction is an emerging threat to wildlife, people, and the entire region. As places along the river are flooded, habitats are lost, water flows are changed, and species disappear. But even in the wake of these changes, more people and industries are attracted to the Mekong — a lifeblood watershed for Southeast Asia — further escalating these impacts.
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However, the situation is gradually changing. The Cambodian government continues to invest in research and monitoring of protected areas, which will serve to strengthen national and local level environment and forestry bureaus and hopefully affect the Cambodia's biological diversity positively.
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