Cambodia Expedition Wrap-up: Where Do We Go From Here?

CI marine biologist Les Kaufman spends most of his trips to the “field” near, on or in the ocean. But this month in Cambodia’s Tonle Sap region, he’s in for something different. Les is part of a team studying the interactions between one of the world’s largest freshwater fisheries and the people who depend on it.

With the adventures of the open lake behind us, we set out to complete our last two missions in Cambodia on this trip : begin our exploration of the lake basin uplands, and discuss how we might unite the multiple elements of our project into a unified whole, complete with a crack team of Cambodian and expat graduate students, postdocs and technicians.

First we set off for the headwaters of the Siem Reap River, perhaps the most famous and visited of the feeder streams to Tonle Sap, for it includes an outer temple of the famous Angkor Wat complex. The short hike up began eventfully, with a gibbon calling from the nearby dipterocarp hill forest.

The piercing call of the slender ape drove home with force and conviction: “These woods are mine! I live here!'” This despite the meager remnant forest, the press of the tourist parade — more than a million strong each year — and the blanket of high-yield rice rolling across what once was jungle. This land is inhabited by living spirits, and whether we care or not, they are sacred.

At the top, we had a rare chance to scrutinize native forest — rare because except for a few large tracts like the Cardamom Mountains, very little forest of any sort remains in Cambodia.

The gushing stream flowed over seemingly limitless lingams and yonis — riverbed carvings (symbolically) depicting genitalia. The water passes over them like a prayer wheel of rebirth and re-creation. Above these carvings were lovely little fishes, elegant species known back home as aquarium specialties. Where the water slicked across the rocks beneath a waterfall, there lit a profusion of butterflies — a mud puddle party of swallowtails. Some with and some without the namesake appendages, all were glowing, gorgeous and in constant, magical motion.

After our climb (note: do not do this in sandals) the group poked around several more temples at Angkor Wat, while I wandered off into the woods to look at more trees and birds. Here on the main grounds of Angkor Wat, I found many fine middle-aged forest trees and here and there small patches of semi-intact forest.

The next day, several of the principal researchers set off by chartered bus for Phnom Penh, stopping along the way to be hosted by the president of the University of Battambang. We ate a superb meal prepared by students of the School of Hospitality while discussing how to build our collaboration and make best use of the resources available at the university. Then we hit the road again for Phnom Penh and several days of program project meetings.

There, we met and were joined by our colleagues at IFReDI, the Cambodian fisheries research institute. IFReDI already has an ambitious research program in full swing, so it was important to align our objectives with their already recognized needs. As we ducked in and out of the meeting we made repeated visits to the previously mentioned twin giant barbs, still strapped atop the car that brought them there.

The meetings focused on integrating our various scientific domains, building our team, designing our fishy experiments and human data gathering, and gearing up a two to three-year program of regular sampling, statistics, modeling and scenario analysis.

This is where things got really interesting. For the first time, we were able to assemble a composite picture of what we did and did not know (but needed to) about the Tonle Sap great lake system as a whole: the lake, flooded and gallery forests, rivers, floodplain, rice-growing districts, cities and hill forests. Together, we began the visualization of the present and alternative futures for the Tonle Sap, its people and its spectacular wildlife.

We also discussed Tonle Sap in the context of the Mekong region as a whole. From the Cardamoms to the lake, from the Chinese mountains down the Mekong to its great delta and the sea, this is an integrated watershed ecosystem with a highly uncertain future. Our work here will take the concept of “ridge to reef” conservation and put it into practice — approaching problems holistically rather than conducting a bunch of independent studies of this or that species, habitat, tribe or municipality.

I felt overwhelmed by new information — sights and (especially) smells gradually assembling themselves into the gestalt that will guide my work in the coming years. Integrated modeling will provide some assistance in keeping things together, but the real tissue and sinew of the program will be the personal relationships among participants from Cambodia, France, the U.S., Canada and New Zealand — relationships built on data and geeky emails, and forged in the field.

There is much reason to feel hopeful. The conversations I’d had with ordinary citizens, the guides at Angkor Wat, the villagers at Prek Toal and of course my own colleagues merged into a sense of a proud people concerned about their livelihoods and natural heritage. They are quite aware of the changes looming before them, though by and large not feeling particularly well empowered to guide their own fate.

Our team has the capacity to analyze opportunity, and help identify the most beneficial, sustainable choices both for the people of today, and for the vibrant ecosystem whose fate cradles the lives of all future Cambodians. If one thing was accomplished on this trip, it was to find strong affirmation that we are at least approaching the problem in the correct way. The ridge-to-reef concept remains strong.

Les Kaufman is a marine conservation fellow with CI and a biology professor with Boston University.