We were sitting by a lush river in the southern Cardamom Mountains, over a lunch of chicken and rice, when the tip came via text message: Someone had passed by the location of a hunting camp.
Within minutes, the entire group—including Head Ranger, Darien Thackwell, and four members of his armed team—was running upstream. Eventually we hid our boat amidst a maze of mangroves and, on foot, made our way through as much dense vegetation as possible.
For four days I was shadowing a group of men who patrol an area of this vast Cambodian rainforest, protecting the area and its wild animals from the constant threats of illegal loggers and poachers. In the remote southwestern province of Koh Kong, near the Thai border, we ran between rivers, trapped in a jungle and battling both leeches and unbearable humidity.
Now, the team of men employed by the Wildlife Alliance, a conservation group, was finally closing in on the poachers.
As we walked through the woods, we found several homemade snails, which were commonly used to catch civets or other small mammals. Darien speculates that the hunters may not be very far away. But then we reached what looked like a hastily abandoned camp: hammocks, canned food, clothing and even two house guns were left behind. I took some pictures while the rangers destroyed the camp, confiscating weapons and nets.
Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains were once a stronghold of the Khmer Rouge, a staunch communist regime that had a presence in the region well into the 1990s. For decades, individual villages in the region had little contact with the outside world. A bloody battle ensued between the local villagers and the guerrillas. The use of land mines was prolific. As a result, the surrounding rainforest survived as one of the most ancient expanses of forest in Southeast Asia.
As conflict subsided and mines were cleared, the rainforest – with its wildlife – was left vulnerable to killing and burning by poachers, loggers and farmers.
For the past two decades, a handful of environmental organizations have been racing against the clock to protect the region’s forests and wildlife.
The Wildlife Coalition is at the forefront of those efforts. The organization prioritizes round-the-clock collaboration with law enforcement and local authorities, ultimately providing practical protection to nearly 3 million acres of the Cardamom Mountains rainforest. It also aims to create more environmentally friendly job options – focusing on education, reforestation and wildlife rehabilitation and release – for local people who may have been previously involved, or otherwise pressured into the illegal trade.
The work of the Wildlife Alliance is perhaps no more evident than in and around the village of Chi Phat, which served as my base camp during my week-long trip.
Reaching Chi Phat requires a three-hour bus ride from Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, followed by a two-hour boat ride on the Praek Piphot River. When I arrived, I was greeted by a series of pleasant scenes: a flurry of residents on bicycles, an improvised game of volleyball, a rough road lined with colorful houses. Along the river, small fishing boats anchored on stilt houses, and a motorized raft carried passengers from shore to shore: farmers with motorbikes, women carrying produce, children in school uniforms.
But today’s glory is only recent history. For many years, most of the people living in this marginalized community participated in slash-and-burn farming or illegal logging and poaching.
It was not until the mid-2000s, when the Wildlife Alliance began working with local people to create alternative sources of income, that Chi Phat began to reverse those trends and began a series of community-based ecotourism initiatives. installed.
Farmers were encouraged to adopt more sustainable farming techniques. At the same time, members of the community rallied to reclaim lost areas of forestland by rebuilding the soil and planting indigenous tree species. Since then, about 840,000 trees have been planted.
In addition, one-time hunters – who had close knowledge of the rainforest and its wildlife – were recruited, trained and equipped to become protective rangers. Armed, they now patrol the area by foot, motorbike, boat and air, protecting the environment from poachers and loggers.
Corruption and the financial greed of illegal trades and large-scale business development projects are still a threat. But with a growing number of locals working with conservationists, saving the forest is no longer a lost cause.
Chi Phat’s location at the foot of the Cardamom Mountains makes it a prime destination for wildlife tourism. Many traditional Cambodian homes have been converted into guesthouses, and English-speaking trail guides lead hikers on trails that cut through emerald hills, mountain streams, rapids, and waterfalls. Intrepid travelers can visit some ancient Khmer archaeological sites as well as some scattered rural communities.
Like many areas dependent on tourism, Chi Phat was also vulnerable to the pandemic. In 2020, visitor numbers dropped by more than 80 percent, underpinning one of the Wildlife Alliance’s major fundraising sources.
But the pandemic has also underscored the importance of curbing the illegal wildlife trade, whose markets are known to harbor pathogens that can jump to humans.
Among the animals found here are binturongs, sun bears, clouded leopards, pangolins, civets, macaques and a huge range of birds, many of which I encountered at a wildlife release station nestled in the middle of the forest. At the station, animals that have been rescued from the illegal wildlife trade, or that have been found in traps or in captivity, are rehabilitated and released.
During the two days I spent at the release station, I went on several walks with Soane, the caretaker of the facility. A kind and creative person, he introduced me to animals as if they were members of his family – one by one, and with profound grace and care. He lived with them and for them.
Growing up in the area in a poor farming community, Soun once participated in poaching to provide for his family. But when the Wildlife Alliance established the release station in 2008, they began to care for and release the animals. He has been working for the organization since then.
On a walk together, Soen and I passed a small sandalwood orchard amidst lush green hills. We saw two sun bears climbing a tree, possibly looking for a hive.
Soen recognized the animals. With a clear sense of pride, he explained that Bear had arrived at the station two years earlier after being injured – and that he had personally helped rehabilitate and release him.