Empower Rural Communities and Help Protect Forests

by Wildlife Alliance
A Muddy Bike Ride Back
A Muddy Bike Ride Back

Last year, Wildlife Alliance took supporters and Advisory Board members on a frequently wild, oftentimes touching, and definitely life-changing trip to our projects in the Southern Cardamom Mountain range of Cambodia. One aspect of the tour included a visit to our Community-Based Ecotourism (CBET) projects in Chi Phat and Trapeang Roung. These projects are located in the Southwestern part of the Cardamom Mountains. Situated amid stunning mountains, rivers, rainforests, wetlands and mangroves, and home to a vibrant and unique array of wildlife, they are ideal destinations for tourists looking for an ecological adventure. What better way to thank our supporters for all their help in making this project “the best community-based ecotourism destination in Cambodia,” than by showing them firsthand the work we do in Chi Phat and Trapeang Roung.

We began our journey with a helicopter ride from the Reforestation Program over the mountains to the O’Malu Waterfall, all the while taking in spectacular views of the Cardamom mountain range. When we arrived, we were greeted by curious children enjoying the day with their families. After swimming, jumping off rocks and devouring a wonderful picnic lunch by the water, we decided to go back to the village by mountain bike. On our way back, we were surprised with an unexpected thunderstorm! This turned a normally rugged ride into a treacherous journey. However, our group enjoyed the challenge and took it in good spirit. Upon our arrival to the village (after drying off of course), we were welcomed by the CBET Committee, where they shared with us the work CBET does to provide rural families with resources to establish and maintain their own businesses. Through CBET, community members can earn an income from sustainable family-run businesses in ecotourism, rather than destructive and illegal poaching and logging. After a long day, we celebrated with dinner and cocktails!

For a chance to meet the communities we serve, and too see firsthand how Wildlife Alliance creates alternative sustainable livelihoods, join us for this year’s Field Visit in November. For more information on this once in a lifetime adventure, click here, or contact Beth Eisenstaedt at eisenstaedt@wildlifealliance.org or 646-569-5861.

Children Playing by the O
Children Playing by the O'Malu Waterfall
Community-Based Ecotourism project in Chi Phat
Community-Based Ecotourism project in Chi Phat

Our Community-Based Ecotourism (CBET) project recently built a new campsite in Trapeang Thmar located about 12.5 miles north of Chi Phat. The trek for this site is the first 5 day/4 night trekking tour in Cambodia, and is our longest and most challenging itinerary so far. The trek takes visitors through dense jungle, by stunning waterfalls, through open grasslands and on scenic boat rides. With wildlife sightings common and a wild elephant encounter already recorded, this trek nearly guarantees tourists a chance to experience wildlife first hand!

The trek is already being recognized by several international tour operators, including Charity Challenge. This UK based tour company raises funds for charity organizations through responsible tourist expeditions. Last month, Charity Challenge completed their first Cambodian Jungle Challenge ever at our CBET in Chi Phat! Participants had the opportunity to witness first hand all the great work Wildlife Alliance does for forest and wildlife protection. They boast that the Cambodia Jungle Challenge is also their “greenest challenge,” since our efforts work to protect the Cardamom Mountains and give back to those local communities. After their rugged trek, travelers got a chance to experience the local culture through a homestay in Chi Phat and finally visit the wonderful animals at Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center on their way back to Phnom Penh. The tour was a huge success, and Charity Challenge has already booked a second tour for February 2013.

Campsite in Trapeang Thmar
Campsite in Trapeang Thmar


Prom Heoung on the Piphot River
Prom Heoung on the Piphot River

I stopped illegal activities when they arrived” says Prom Heoung in excellent English.  His dark eyes light up slowly and his prominent cheekbones reveal a bright smile.  Proud of his English and of what he does for his community, like over 150 other villagers, Heoung has traded poaching and slash-and-burn farming for ecotourism since the Community-Based Ecotourism (CBET) project was launched in the village of Chi Phat five years ago.

Situated on the banks of the Piphot River, Chi Phat is postcard-perfect rural Cambodian village, home to 550 families, including Heoung’s.  A quiet and peaceful place today, Chi Phat used to be a busy area for wildlife traffickers and loggers.  Heoung was a member of their ranks, setting illegal forest fires for farmland and hunting wildlife to earn an income and feed his family.  Two decades of civil war had ravaged his village, leaving a legacy of poverty, little to no education, and no sustainable income options.

Heoung remembers when, in the late 1980s, big logging concessions exploited the forest around his home and Cambodians came from all over the country to fell rosewood and hunt wildlife.  These illegal activities were far more profitable than other farming activities – one cubic meter of rosewood would net a logger around $5,000 for their family.  Tiger skins, elephant tusks, bear paws, pangolins and other expensive wildlife trophies could be easily traded for big payoffs.  At its peak, thousands of families were living in Chi Phat, supplying the needs of the rich elite living in Phnom Penh and China.

However, for the past decade, people have been forbidden by law to pursue these activities.  Fearing jail time, Heoung sought new opportunities in order for his family to survive.  The CBET offered just such an opportunity.  Launched in 2007, the CBET provides a better and more sustainable means of income for local community members through employment as guides, homestay operators, and cooks.  When the project started, Heoung decided to join immediately as guide, leading adventurous tourists through the rainforest.  With his extensive experience in the jungle, he knew every trail, tree and sound that the rainforest had to offer, the quickest way to reach the five waterfalls surrounding Chi Phat, and the best spots to view wildlife.  For two years, he worked as a guide, studied English, and learned to see the beauty of the jungle that surrounded him that he had previously only considered a means of survival.  In 2009, Heoung became chief of the CBET Committee, which manages the project with technical support from Wildlife Alliance, a position in which he still serves today.  He is charged with providing the project with direction and management and ensuring the community and local authorities work together to promote and preserve the site – a far cry from stripping the forest of its resources, Heoung now protects the resources of the surrounding land.

After five years, Chi Phat has become the most successful CBET project in Cambodia and one of the most successful in Southeast Asia.  It now has 13 guesthouses, 10 homestays and 160 km of trails for trekking and mountain biking.  To date, Chi Phat has welcomed over 5,400 domestic and international visitors, generating over $205,000 in income to the community.  This is due in no small part to the hard work of Heoung.  His dedication to the success of the project has served as an example for the community, brought his family a good and steady income, and moreover, has contributed to the conservation and sustainable use of this rainforest jewel.

September 27th marks World Tourism Day (WTD) 2012 and the theme this year is apt for Wildlife Alliance’s community-based ecotourism work in Southwestern Cambodia.  The purpose of WTD is to foster awareness among the international community of the importance of tourism and its social, cultural, political and economic value.  It intends to highlight the contribution the tourism sector can make in combating some of our global challenges.  This year, the theme of World Tourism Day is Tourism & Sustainable Energy: Powering Sustainable Development.  Wildlife Alliance’s Community-Based Ecotourism (CBET) project in Chi Phat and Trapeang Roung villages is the perfect example of how sustainable tourism solutions can power sustainable development.  By providing alternative, climate-smart livelihoods to former wildlife poachers and slash-and-burn farmers, not only is our CBET project helping stop the destruction of the forest but it is ensuring that future development will be sustainable for the environment and the human population.  This contribution has not gone unheeded.  The Cambodian Ministry of Tourism has recognized the Chi Phat CBET as the leading ecotourism site in the country and its importance to Cambodian tourism has contributed, just in the last year, to the cancellation of two huge economic land concessions that would have decimated the natural surroundings.  People outside Cambodia are taking notice as well.  Recently, the Boston Globe and the Washington Post have written articles heralding the experience at both CBET sites.  Our hope is that with continued support from our donors, we will be able to increase the capacity at both sites and grow the projects into self-sustaining tourism destinations that promote rural Cambodian culture, sustainable development, and responsible stewardship of ecotourism sites.

Community Training
Community Training


Water festivals are a typical New Year’s celebration throughout Asia.  Cambodia, however, celebrates a special water festival in November that marks an incredible occurrence of national importance – the reversal of the flow between the Tonle Sap Lake and the Mekong River.  These two bodies of water are the lifeblood of the Cambodian culture and economy, and this natural anomaly is a major part of how Cambodians work their land.

For most of the year, the Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, empties into the Mekong River system.  However, when the rainy season starts around June, the water level in the Mekong rises, and the flow of water reverses to dump into the lake, increasing its size ten-fold.  When the rainy season ends at the beginning
of November, the Mekong drops and the current reverses again.  Known as Bon Om Touk in Khmer, this festival
has been celebrated in Cambodia since the time of the Angkorian King Jayavarman VII in the 12th century.  It was intended to kick off the fishing season and give thanks to the river gods to ensure a plentiful catch.  It is marked with a three day festival featuring fluvial parades, boat races, and fireworks.

The community at Trapeang Roung, home to Wildlife Alliance’s second Community-Based Ecotourism (CBET) project puts on a celebration every year.  Everyone in the village attends, including the Commune Chief and Provincial Governor.  It is a fantastic outpouring of excitement, an important cultural touchstone for the community, and something that tourists and visitors can experience as well!  This past November, a group of visitors had the chance to participate in the traditional boat races.  Let’s just say – it’s an activity better left to the professionals!  The boat races typically pit two boats against each other in a sprint race along a stretch of river.  The community lines the banks to cheer on their neighbors and friends.  They were gracious and welcoming in letting the tourists participate and generous with their support of the rowers – even as the team of tourists fell further and further behind!  It’s not every day that they get to see a bunch of visitors make a foolish attempt at something they themselves are expert at, so it provided much curiosity for all the onlookers.  For their part, the tourists had fun rowing and laughing at themselves as they lagged far behind.  Most importantly, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience the culture in a rural Cambodian village.  This is an added benefit of the CBETs: when you go there, it’s not just a tourist destination or an ecological adventure, but a window into the world of the area’s inhabitants.


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Organization Information

Wildlife Alliance

Location: New York, NY - USA
Website: http:/​/​www.wildlifealliance.org
Project Leader:
Sheena Thiruselvan
Development Officer
New York, NY United States

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