20 May 2016

Huge protected forest jigsaw completed

The last piece of the puzzle: newly-protected Western Siem Pang forest © Jonathan Eames
The last piece of the puzzle: birds-eye view of newly-protected Western Siem Pang forest. Image shows 'trapaeng' forest pool. © Jonathan Eames
By Shaun Hurrell

The picture on the jigsaw box is of an extensive swathe of unified nature, beyond borders, of thriving wildlife and local communities across 700,000 hectares in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, together making one of the largest protected landscapes in South-East Asia.

For the last couple of years, one of the most valuable jigsaw pieces in the world was missing – a large deciduous forest called Western Siem Pang in northern Cambodia.

Now it has finally been slotted into place. Welcome to the new Prey Siem Pang Lech Wildlife Sanctuary.

In this newly protected forest you will find Endangered Eld’s Deer roaming and not one – but five – Critically Endangered bird species breeding, including 50% of the global population of White-shouldered Ibis Pseudibis davisoni and 10% of the world’s Giant Ibis Thaumatibis gigantea. You will also find a dedicated BirdLife team, skilfully covering huge distances every day on urban motorbikes unsuitable for the sandy terrain, diligently monitoring crucial forest pool habitats, or working with an enforcement team to report illegal logging and confiscate wood and wildlife. Some rangers, like Mem Mai, are ex-hunters and have an ear so well-trained that they can monitor bird song over the noise of the motorbike engine.

Ask Project Officer Eang Samnang, and he will tell you the exact location of all three Critically Endangered vulture species’ nests. Or that the vulture ‘restaurant’ they created to supplement vulture feeding (due to a decline in large wild mammals) now accounts for 73% of all of Cambodia’s vultures.

In the local villages, you will find Dina Yam, Community Outreach Officer, showing educational films to prevent wildlife poisonings, or helping people build up herds of cattle and buffalo. Lately, the Cambodia team and Forestry Administration had an economic land concession cancelled to prevent the clearance of the forest for plantations and came one step closer to ensuring protected status.

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Suffice to say that the BirdLife Cambodia Programme has been working hard for years to protect Western Siem Pang. Celebrations in 2014 saw the designation of the northern half being declared a Protected Forest. But the puzzle was not completed until this week when the Prey Siem Pang Lech Wildlife Sanctuary was created covering over 65,000 hectares in the remaining southern half of the forest.

Welcome to Western Siem Pang:

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen signed the sub-decree establishing Prey Siem Pang Lech Wildlife Sanctuary on 9th May 2016, with a boundary that follows almost exactly what BirdLife proposed. Now this boundary completes the regional protected area puzzle combining forest in southern Laos, northern Cambodia and western Vietnam.

This latest sub-decree also sees the upgrade of the northern half of Western Siem Pang forest from its Protected Forest status, bringing the total area designated as Wildlife Sanctuary to 132,321 hectares.

“We delight with this decision and BirdLife’s Cambodia team will continue support Ministry of Environment to manage this wildlife sanctuary”, said Bou Vorsak, BirdLife Cambodia Programme Manager.

“This success comes from working in close collaboration with our government partners, the Forestry Administration of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and the General Department of Administration for Nature Conservation and Protection of the Ministry of Environment, and thanks to unwavering support from the MacArthur Foundation over the many years.”

“My department is proud to have initiated this protected area designation processs,” said Dr Keo Omaliss, Director of Department Wildlife and Biodiversity of Forestry Administration. “As someone who studied the Giant Ibis as part of my PhD research, I am pleased this population of this Critically Endangered species is now more secure. The Royal Government of Cambodia is committed to establishing more Protected Forest in the near future.”

Endangered Eld's Deer roaming newly-protected Western Siem Pang forest © Jonathan EamesNew grants from MacArthur Foundation and Darwin Initiative are crucial to providing the resources to enable the process of zonation in the Sanctuaries to begin, as BirdLife works with the government to plan the management of the forest.

Kong Kim Sreng, Head of the Department of Terrestrial Protected Areas at the Ministry of Environment, said: “I am so pleased to have played the final role in getting Prey Siem Pang Lech Wildlife Sanctuary nominated.

"I now look forward to working closely with BirdLife to make the protected area a reality on the ground.”

The preservation of wild places is often pitched as a battle between the interests of wildlife and the interests of people. It’s not.

It was only by understanding the value of Western Siem Pang forest for threatened birds and for local people that its future is now secure – for both.

Off to the 'trapaeng' © Shaun Hurrell

Western Siem Pang illustrates this connection very simply. Scattered under the broad leaves of the forest, seasonal pools called trapaengs are central to the lives of people as well as wildlife. In the dry season these trapaengs all but dry up (especially if buffalo aren’t around to wallow) - but they are sources of water, frogs and fish for humans and birds alike, and also provide a wealth of non-timber forest products. Recognising this common interest, BirdLife works with local people and over a decade has established a network of Local Conservation Groups who agreed a Trapaeng Management Protocol to protect the essential pools, alongside the Ibises, Deer and other threatened wildlife like Gaur, Banteng, Clouded Leopard and Red-shanked Douc Langur.

All this shows that of course it is never as simple as slotting a jigsaw piece into place, but the hard work behind BirdLife’s Cambodia Programme certainly makes it look that way.

“The many years of perseverance have paid off at last,” said Jonathan Eames, BirdLife Cambodia.

To find out how this story evolves, and if the Giant & White-shouldered Ibis, Slender-billed, Red-headed & White-rumped Vulture populations bounce back, subscribe to our newsletter below.

'Buffalo friend': short film made by BirdLife Cambodia Programme about Western Siem Pang

BirdLife wishes to thank all supporters of our work in Cambodia culminating in this fantastic news, including the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation; Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund; Darwin Initiative, UK Government; Giant Ibis Transport (Species Champion); Mr Steven Martin (Species Champion); Forestry Bureau of the Council of Agriculture of Chinese Taiwan; Directorate-General for International Cooperation, Netherlands Government; British Birdwatching Fair.

Western Siem Pang is an Important Bird & Biodiversity Area, and a BirdLife Forest of Hope.