Forests of Hope site - Western Siem Pang Forest, Cambodia

Ibis nest monitoring and guarding by local people. Photo: Jonathan C. Eames.


Site name: Western Siem Pang Forest

Country: Cambodia

IBA(s): KH08

Location: Siem Pang District, Stung Treng Province, NE Cambodia

Site area: 149,710 ha

Country Programme: BirdLife International Cambodia Programme


Values of the site

Ninety percent of Western Siem Pang is covered by intact forest typical of the original vegetation of central Indochina. Half is dry dipterocarp forest and 40 % denser semi-evergreen forest; the remainder is degraded semi-evergreen forest (5%), deforested land including cultivation (3%) and water (2%). The forest is relatively open in many places, denser in others, and has a grassy understorey. Scattered throughout the forest are a number of pools and seasonally wet meadows (locally known as trapaengs) which are of great importance to the site’s biodiversity.  The Sekong River, a major feeder river of the Mekong, flows through the site supporting extensive stretches of riverine forest.

The IBA is an excellent example of the dry forest ecosystem of the Mekong basin. It supports populations of an astonishing 5 Critically Endangered species: White-shouldered Ibis Pseudibis davisoni, Giant Ibis Thaumatibis gigantea, White-rumped Vulture Gyps bengalensis, Slender-billed Vulture Gyps tenuirostris and Red-headed Vulture Sarcogyps calvus. Such a concentration is globally unique to this small part of Cambodia.

Other threatened bird species are present, such as Indian Spotted Eagle Aquila hastata, Green Peafowl Pavo muticus, Sarus Crane Grus antigone, Lesser Adjutant Leptoptilos javanicus, Greater Adjutant Leptoptilos dubious and Great Slaty Woodpecker Mulleripicus pulverulentus. Threatened mammal species include Eld’s Deer Cervus eldi and Sun Bear Helarctos malayanus.

The site’s importance for wildlife is enhanced by its location, connecting Virachey National Park in Cambodia to the east with Xe Pian National Protected Area in Laos to the west; conservation of Western Siem Pang would create a unique block of protected forests allowing free movement and more viable populations of some of the rarest large animal and bird species in Asia.

The forest is of great importance for local communities. These communities depend on the forest wetlands (trapaengs) for water, fish and non-timber forest products. Research by BirdLife in collaboration with the University of East Anglia in the UK has shown that traditional land management is integral to creating and maintaining the ecosystem. The activities of traditional pastoralists such as grazing of cattle and buffalo produces clearings in the forest, whilst their trampling and wallowing creates marshy depressions which deepen into sizeable pools or trapaengs. Indeed, these domestic herds may fulfil an ecological role historically performed by wild ungulates that are now absent from the area. The project offers great opportunities for working with local communities for the conservation of this important forest.

Western Siem Pang Forest with 'trapaeng' wetland. Photo by Jonathan C. Eames.


The biggest threat to biodiversity at the IBA is posed by an Economic Land Concession for the establishment of plantations of exotic species, which would lead to extensive forest clearance and have irreversible impacts on biodiversity.

Lower-level threats include:

  •  Small-scale extraction of timber (local or commercial use)
  •  Clearance of forest for cultivation
  •  Collection of large waterbirds (for food)


Historical conservation approach

No conservation activity was taking place before this programme. The forest and its wildlife were protected largely by their remoteness, a factor now largely negated by infrastructure developments and concession licencing.

Since 2001 the southern and central part of the site has been under a 70-year concession to a Cambodian company to establish tree crop or biofuel plantations (jatropha, sugar, rubber and/or teak). Until recently, a second concession existed in the centre of the site, covering around 10,000 ha; in 2011, after advocacy from BirdLife International presenting the alternative vision proposed here, this concession was cancelled. The remaining, northernmost, part of the forest remains unallocated.

The Forestry Administration is the body charged with managing the nation’s forest estate but suffers difficulties typical of under-resourced government departments. Forest management is made more difficult by ‘land-grabbing’ for concessions allowing forest conversion, which has prevailed of late over much of Cambodia. Without project action, the forest will continue to be degraded and lost piecemeal, if it is not cleared completely for plantations.


Working in rice fields local communities in Western Siem Pang. Photo by Jonathan C. Eames.

New conservation approach

The approach proposed is the designation of Western Siem Pang as a Protected Forest, with BirdLife as manager or co-manager with the Forest Administration; despite the name, Protected Forests are part of the permanent forest estate, not Protected Areas. The Government wishes and needs to maximize revenue from forest, and large concessions are possible, which are ideal for conserving dispersed species while ensuring benefits for local communities. A project response must deliver such revenue. Privately held forest leaseholds are permitted for logging concessions and Protected Areas, for up to 99 years.

Progress is already being made towards this aim. The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries of Cambodia has applied to establish Western Siem Pang Protected Forest covering the unallocated northern part of the site, for approval by the Prime Minister. The Ministry’s willingness to challenge concessions that threaten the forest has been shown by its cancellation of one of them. Conservation options for the remaining concession area, assuming it is maintained, are being pursued through dialogue with the concession holder.

These events demonstrate the exceptional opportunity that the site offers, and the commitment of the Government to a new management vision.

Western Siem Pang: A model for sustainable protected area management in Cambodia

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