Drone footage of Phnom Tamao forest destruction
In early March, Wildlife Alliance learned that the Forestry Administration (FA), the agency responsible for Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre where our project rehabilitates rescued animals, had requested permission from the Royal Government of Cambodia to sell off large tracts of the surrounding forest for development. Phnom Tamao lies only about 10 miles as the bird flies from the new Phnom Penh airport currently under construction and is just a 25 mile drive from the capitol. Using all means at our disposal, we immediately began to investigate and to lobby for the forest to be preserved as a wildlife sanctuary with limited conservation-friendly development such as hiking trails and ecotourism sites.
Eventually we learned that while the Rescue Centre itself would be preserved, the remaining 1,900 hectares of forest was to be ‘developed’ – destroyed to build a satellite city. Exact details were vague, but three companies apparently involved in these plans were named in the press. When FA assured us that the ~400 hectare fenced area comprising the Centre, where Wildlife Alliance has built hundreds of large, natural enclosures and facilities over many years with support from generous donors like you, would be spared, they also stated that there was little to no wildlife within the forested area they planned to sell. They dismissed our concerns about how their intended development would decimate wildlife in the forest, including those released from the Centre, endemic populations that have flourished within that habitat because we have protected it well for years, and the flocks of migratory birds that return each year to enjoy this oasis of lakes and trees amidst ever growing urbanization as Phnom Penh’s concrete jungle spreads.
My boss Nick, who established this project at PTWRC over two decades ago, and Wildlife Alliance’s CEO, Suwanna, launched an all-out campaign to Save Phnom Tamao, appealing to Prime Minister H.E. Samdech Hun Sen to intervene. We produced dozens of videos and social media posts, such as this ‘Forest at Phnom Tamao could be cleared’ video, networked with allies and liaised with reporters to help raise public awareness about the threat to the forest. I have never been prouder of the people with whom I work, nor more fearful that such an iconic part of Cambodia’s natural heritage would be destroyed.
Despite knowing for months that Phnom Tamao was under threat, it was still a horrible blow to learn that bulldozers had suddenly appeared during the last weekend of July and the forest was rapidly being razed. Our staff took dramatic drone footage of the clearing, which was widely shared on social media and in the press to raise the alarm bells. Images taken by the European Space Agency’s Sentinel Satellite showed 130 hectares of forest destroyed within 5 days. Local villagers reported they saw sambar deer, captive-bred at the Centre and released into the forest by our Care for Recued Wildlife Program, fleeing the bulldozers, bounding into adjacent plantations - and they heard gun shots fired that night.
When the news broke, I was on holiday in Vermont visiting family. In a state of shock akin to the moments after learning a loved one has died, I called Nick, who has poured so much heart, soul and sweat into Phnom Tamao. I spent many hours grieving, weeping tears, both heartbroken and bitter, for the thousands of animals Wildlife Alliance has rescued, loved and released into the Phnom Tamao forest. Each morning I would learn what had happened at Phnom Tamao while I was sleeping, and message colleagues and friends as we mobilized our social networks to beg the Prime Minister to intervene and protect the remaining forest. The public outcry was almost as swift as the clearing. Within days tens of thousands posted comments on the Prime Minister’s Facebook page, and people entirely unaffiliated with Wildlife Alliance had organized a boycott of the companies behind the development. That weekend I went camping in a pristine state park in my homeland, going offline to digitally detox from the events unfolding on state forestland in my adopted country. Upon returning, I expected even worse news and reconnected to check my messages with dread. But even after ten years here, the ‘Kingdom of Wonder’ never ceases to surprise me.
On August 7, the Prime Minister announced on his Facebook page that all development permits are cancelled, the forest is to be protected and conserved, and the companies that cleared the trees must reforest the area. He cited “a lot of requests to the Royal Government to keep the forest around Phnom Tamao zoo” as influencing his decision. A total of 530 hectares of Phnom Tamao forest was destroyed in the week prior to this proclamation, and the following day replanting started in that area. On August 19, King Norodom Sihamoni signed a Royal Sub-decree creating the “Phnom Tamao” Zoological Garden, Protected Forest and Botanical Garden (link to Fresh News Asia coverage and screenshot of the signing are below).
The news has been met here with joy and renewed hope for wildlife conservation in Cambodia. When strangers learn where I work now, they thank me for all Wildlife Alliance does. Support from donors like you is what makes this work possible. Thank you so much.
If you would like your gifts to help Cambodia’s rescued wildlife go even further, please consider donating September 12-16 during the upcoming Little by Little campaign when donations of up to $50 will be matched at 50% by GlobalGiving!
Released sambar stag, camera trap photo, PT forest
530 hectares destroyed (European Space Agency)
King signs PT forest sub-decree (Fresh News Asia)