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Published March 12, 2008 10:31 PM

Chainsaws Cut into Cambodia’s Preah Monivong National Park

Cambodia’s Preah Monivong National Park is an ecological jewel, rich in unique and endangered wildlife and plants. Known better in the country by its local name of Bokor, it is located in the southwest in Kampot Province and is among Cambodia’s most visited tourist attractions.

The range of habitats found within Bokor support a number of important mammal species including tigers, leopards, Asian elephants, sun bears, and gibbons. A total of 223 bird species have been recorded in the park, six of which are globally significant, 13 are regionally significant, and 12 have never been seen elsewhere before.

The unusual high elevation sphagnum bogs and evergreen forests harbour a number of rare and unusual plant species and it is often these rare specimens which become the target of poachers, fetching high sums on the black market.

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In 2004, Bokor was listed as one of Cambodia’s two ASEAN Heritage Parks and over recent years, its environmental and economic significance has led the Cambodian Government to work with a number of independent conservation groups to invest time and resources into park protection. This collaboration has led to Bokor becoming one of Cambodia’s best protected national parks.


But even with this protection, Bokor’s natural heritage is under threat. Illegal poaching activities conducted within the park boundaries inflict irreparable damage to populations of internationally protected endangered animals such as tigers, leopards and Asian elephants, as well as damaging thousands of hectares of forest in order to remove remnant communities of protected plants such as blackwood, rosewood and aloewood. The raw materials from these animals and plants when sold on the black market can fetch poachers significant sums of money compared to what they can earn in the rural areas adjacent to the park.


PeunPa Foundation, a member of international organization Wildlife Alliance, is one NGO that is working with the Cambodian Government, Bokor National Park staff and communities surrounding the park to put a stop to poaching activities and give locals a better chance of escaping poverty.

Since 2000, PeunPa has been implementing a conservation programme they call Surviving Together. Tim Redford, Surviving Together program coordinator explains that “we provide training and support for the park rangers so that they are better equipped to tackle the challenges which they face on a daily basis.” The programme has trained and fully outfitted 55 rangers so far. Besides confiscating chainsaws, the rangers also destroy poachers’ camps, demolish charcoal kilns and remove thousands of snares from the forest each year. Yet the problems still appear to be on the increase.


Newly empowered locals
As the enforcement actions of the national parks’ staff trained by PeunPa are scaled up, they only seem to result in finding larger and larger numbers of illegal chainsaws. In December 2007, 23 chainsaws were confiscated from within Bokor by ranger anti-poaching patrols. The record haul took total confiscations for the year to 153, well above the 97 recovered there in 2006. In total, more than 600 chainsaws have been confiscated since the Surviving Together programme began.

The chainsaws cost between US$200-800, a considerable sum to local villagers, but PeunPa believes that these machines are supplied to villagers by middlemen interested in the timber. It only takes about one cubic metre of blackwood or rosewood, sold on the black market, to earn back this outlay, and of course, the chainsaws enable logging to happen at a much greater pace. According to Greenpeace research, a single chainsaw operator can fell and cut four or five trees into lumber in a single day. Over a year, those 150 chainsaws operating every day in Bokor would mean upwards of 200,000 trees felled.

“Before chainsaws, it would take several men over a week to cut down and saw up one tree. Now, a poacher armed with a chainsaw can cut through an old-growth giant in a matter of minutes,” Redford explains.


The branding on many of the chainsaws confiscated in Bokor shows they could be manufactured by Germany’s STIHL Power Tools. PeunPa believes however that while Europe is the home of much of the chainsaw technology used to strip Asian forests, the saws themselves are coming in from another location, or maybe being illegally assembled from spare parts in Cambodia.

The record number of them being found in Bokor highlights a problem that extends right across Cambodia, despite tougher government restrictions and the success of ranger patrols in some areas. “More patrols means more poachers being caught” says Redford, but the trend in Bokor is a “major problem, with wider and more worrying implications for what might be happening in the country’s more vulnerable forests.” Bokor has the capacity to report figures at least: the extent of the problem elsewhere remains unclear.

According to Redford, some of the trees being illegally felled in Bokor are over 100 years old, and their value to the environment is far greater than the price their timber fetches on the black market.

“These trees are important carbon sinks and a vital link in ecosystems that support many other plant and animal species. If we don’t protect them from loggers, Cambodia’s forests could become an environmental disaster. With the threat of global warming, we know that the loss of forest in Cambodia doesn’t just hurt local communities, it affects the whole planet.”


Globally, Cambodia has one of the world’s worst deforestation rates. The last global forest cover survey conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in 2005 found that Cambodia had lost 29% of its primary tropical forest over a five year period. Despite the introduction of a moratorium on concession logging in Cambodia in 2002, illegal logging continues to cause severe damage to the remainder.

Neighbourhood watchPreviously contiguous with neighbouring Kirirom National Park, Bokor is now separated from it by the main road from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville. The thoroughfare not only cuts through the territories of species living in the parks, it has crucially also created easier access into areas that were previously remote and hard to reach.

Over 50,000 people live in the areas surrounding Bokor National Park and rural poverty is widespread among them, especially in the villages farther from the main road but nearer to the park. Basic services such as water, food and adequate housing are lacking, so many of these communities rely on forest resources for fuel, food, construction materials, supplies for handicrafts and their household income with few other opportunities for employment around.


It is these pressures that lead locals to pursue illegal activities in order to survive. Unfortunately though, it is often the middle men who reap the financial rewards while the locals decimate the very environment on which they ultimately depend. Cambodia’s Prime Minister, Hun Sen, has acknowledged the environmental damage logging is causing and, in late 2006, declared it illegal to possess a chainsaw anywhere in Cambodia without a permit issued by the Forestry Administration. This permit also needs to be endorsed by the Ministry of Environment in areas under their jurisdiction (around one fifth of the country). Nevertheless, the chainsaws being confiscated in Bokor are somehow being imported and used without the necessary paperwork.


Redford says decisive action is needed to tackle the chainsaw threat in Cambodia – action that looks beyond park borders and involves effective inter-agency cooperation. “Any chainsaws found in Bokor are either destroyed or impounded so they can never find their way back into the wrong hands. Unfortunately, the shadowy operators behind the illegal logging seem to have no trouble equipping poachers with new units. We need all the authorities working together to find out how these chainsaws are being imported and stop them reaching protected areas in the first place.”


At this stage, rangers and conservationists can only speculate as to how these expensive machines are making their way into the hands of poor poachers. A Cambodian Customs officer, who asked to remain anonymous, told PeunPa that he suspects the imported chainsaws are being deliberately mislabelled as farm equipment in order to avoid scrutiny.

“Following the chainsaw trail is difficult,” says Derek Anderson, PeunPa’s Law Enforcement Liaison Officer. “Chainsaws have many legitimate uses, so it’s often hard to determine when they are destined for illegal use in protected areas. Unlike weapons, chainsaws don’t immediately arouse suspicion and can creep under the radar of Customs and law enforcement officials.”


Where next?Since hearing of their possible link to the Cambodian deforestation problem, STIHL’s representatives in the United States have agreed in principle to cooperate with PeunPa and offer assistance in tracking where the confiscated chainsaws are being produced and if they are genuine STIHL products or illegally produced imitations.

If successful, this may at last be the help regional law enforcement agencies need to find a link to the middle men or the importers and bring a stop to their trade. Ultimately, only effective collaboration between NGOs such as PeunPa, the corporate sector and governments can help put a stop to the criminals who are lining their pockets at a huge cost to the environment as well as the people who depend on it. That goes for the impoverished rural communities of Cambodia and, very likely, for numerous similar places around the world.

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