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How Eco-tourism Is Saving Northern Cambodia's Countryside


New tours of northern Cambodia are working to save the forest, and the culture and creatures who call it home. By CLAIRE KNOX. Photographed by CHARLOTTE PERT.

Published on Oct 6, 2017

 

HALFWAY DOWN THE RIDGE, Pech Mogn stops in his tracks, plants his tall, shiny telescope in the copper-colored earth below us and whips his head around to face us, whispering for us to be still and quiet. A sudden flash of turquoise flies through the gold-flecked, emerald canopy below us. Pech's eyes light up. "Banded kingfisher," he says with a grin, flicking to the listing in his chunky bird-watching tome.

 

A whistling hawk-cuckoo
A whistling hawk-cuckoo in Seima Protected Forest. Courtesy of Jahoo Gibbon Camp.

Pech is an enthusiastic bird-watching guide with the acclaimed Sam Veasna Center (SVC), and I'm on one of their newest adventures: a trek through to Mondulkiri's Seima Protected Forest, a biodiversity hotspot in the northern reaches of Cambodia covering some 3,000 square kilometers that was declared a protected area by the government in 2009. We'll spend the remainder of our two-day safari hiking through thick jungle in search of the 1,000 or so elusive and enigmatic yellow-cheeked crested gibbons that call it home—reportedly one of the biggest populations in the world—and meeting the Bunong, a local tribe that shares these woods with them. The Bunong people have traditionally lived off the forest but for the last two decades have been forced out through land concessions and illegal logging. New tours by SVC are helping preserve the habitat, wildlife and rich culture of this indigenous minority while creating new jobs that offer locals an incentive to stay.

Pech had woken us up at the crack of dawn to be at this rather remote location, close to Dak Dam village and just 25 kilometers from the Mondulkiri province's capital of Sen Monorom. We cloak ourselves in sweatshirts and scarves as Pech maneuvers his telescope lens to various branches in the forest. While tropical Cambodia is in the throes of its steamy season, here in the so-called "Switzerland of Cambodia," where the average elevation is 80 meters above sea level, it's a nippy 10 degrees Celsius. "Mountain imperial-pigeons," he tells us, pointing to three plump, maroon-colored birds. "Look, a red-collared dove," he adds a few minutes later, "Ah, and a scarlet minivet," coos one of four French birders on our trip. Around 20 minutes later, we spot a black-crested bulbul—bright yellow feathers with a black head—and Pech is finally satisfied.

Pech Mogn
Pech Mogn, from SVC, leads a bird-watching tour in Seima.

An hour or so later, the temperature begins to creep up and we snack on crusty, warm baguettes with raspberry jam before piling into a 4WD bound for the Jahoo Gibbon Camp, a collaborative tourism project run by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), SVC and the Bunong. As we drive, Pech regales us with the rare birdlife we're likely to encounter—great hornbills, green peafowls, Siamese firebacks—but it's when he mentions the gibbons that he really grabs the whole car's attention. Of the 1,000 gibbons that call Mondulkiri home, there are 155 of the yellow-cheeked beauties living around a three-kilometer radius of Seima's Andong Kralong village, where Jahoo Gibbon Camp is based. Here, primate enthusiasts have ample enticement to cast their eyes to the canopy: this area contains the largest population of the endangered black-shanked doucs in the world, tipped to be in excess of 20,000, as well as almost 2,000 Germain's silver langurs and pig-tailed macaques. Also patrolling the jungle are giant squirrels, the endangered Asian elephant, two species of bears and at least five species of wildcats.

 

WE ARRIVE AT THE CAMP
to find five safari-style canvas tents, the bamboo lounge (a rustic dining hut with daybeds and resplendent sunset views of the forest), homemade rain showers and even an eco-friendly composting toilet. Over a lunch spread of earthy Bunong delicacies such as trav chouk (eggplant, fiery chilies, fish paste and pork fat pounded to a pulp) and milder, traditional Khmer curries served with rice and washed down with the fresh coffee for which Mondulkiri is famed, we're introduced to Khang Soeung, a WCS tourism officer and former law student who grew up in a Bunong village not far from here.

Jahoo Gibbon Camp
A rustic tent at the Jahoo Gibbon Camp.

It all feels feel very bucolic, much like any other rural village in the region, with scrawny chickens and fat pigs waddling around in the dust under stilted wooden homes and ruddy-faced children waving at us, but Seoung tells us that the Bunong traditions and lifestyle are rapidly changing as globalization reaches its long arm across Cambodia. Over the past 20 years, land concessions given to powerful companies such as plantation giant Vietnam Rubber Group have pushed many tribes off their land and have taken from the Bunong the resources they needed for their traditional livelihoods: resin from Trach and Chheuteal Toek trees (considered a luxury wood), medicinal plants, natural dyes for intricate woven textiles, rattan and grass for their thatch-roofed homes, and the wild honey used in cooking.

And as the forests vanish, so does the younger generation, leaving the far-flung rural provinces such as Mondulkiri in favor of factory jobs in Phnom Penh. "It's mainly just the elders here," Seoung says. "The kids work in the cities and when they come back they bring TVs, cars, motorbikes, iPhones," which sets an example for their younger siblings to follow in their footsteps. And those who stay often get roped into illegal logging. "So many outside people come in to convince them to log. They offer motorbikes, cars and money," Seoung says. "How can we compete with that?"

A picnic of Khmer classics is served to guests at the Jahoo Gibbon Camp
A picnic of Khmer classics is served to guests at the Jahoo Gibbon Camp.

Seoung hopes the new tours with SVC will show younger generations the steady, reliable income that ecotourism can fetch, and offer them an alternative to leaving home: "If we can convince the youth to still hold on to these rich traditional foods, the spiritual offerings, to encourage the connection to the forest and wildlife and show them tourists are interested in this, I think it can turn things around and keep this culture from fading out."

 

THE JAHOO GIBBON CAMP
makes for a powerful case study: each time a tourist spots a key species, SVC donates US$15 (with a maximum of US$30 per tourist) into a community development fund, with a Bunong committee set up to decide how it's spent. Currently, there is US$4,000 in the bank, and while it may not seem like a vast amount of money, it will mean the construction of a new system of wells to provide clean, safe drinking water for the community—an initiative that could save lives.

Morning trek
A group on a morning trek through Seima Forest.

Jahoo Gibbon Camp also brings new jobs to the villagers who are employed as cooks, guides and gibbon researchers, and it is improving life for the gibbons as well. Soeung says the Bunong elders have told him they've already noticed changes in the primates' behavior: "Before WCS and SVC worked with us, you couldn't see them—whoosh and they'd disappear. But they're becoming less shy, and more curious. They'll hang around and look at us. These are all great signs." If the gibbons are less afraid of humans, it is easier for people to spot them, which grants WSC and SVC better observation and research opportunities to track the population of the species and help protect them against poaching. The program is working, and last year, SVC received an award for "Best Contribution to Wildlife Conservation" at the World Responsible Tourism Awards in London, selected from a shortlist of 75 entrants.

After a long morning learning about the gibbons, we finally set off in the afternoon sun in hopes of seeing some. As we get deeper into the jungle, the soundtrack gets louder: the creaks of bamboo branches grinding against each other, the thick carpet of leaves crunching under our feet. Thirty minutes into our trek and we hear a rustling in the trees. Pech tells us to stay still and silent. He trains his telescope upwards, and his eyes light up again. Soon enough, we too make out the three odd-looking creatures lounging languidly high up in the canopy. One is a tawny brown and two others are a deep black with yellow, puffy cheeks. They peer at us for a moment, before swinging back through the trees and disappearing into the thicket.

Stare down a black-shanked douc langur monkey in Mondulkiri.
Stare down a black-shanked douc langur monkey in Mondulkiri. Courtesy of Jahoo Gibbon Camp.

For the Bunong, the concept of land is intrinsically linked to spiritual traditions, myths and legends. "The Bunong would never dare poach a gibbon," Soeung tells us. "They're seen as the most sacred creatures of the Mondulkiri forests. Our folktales say the gibbon was once a man who was tempted into the forests." I look around at the towering trees, golden-hour light filtering through millions of leaves in the undulating canopy, and I too am tempted.

 

 

   THE DETAILS

 

 

GETTING THERE
The closest airport to Mondulkiri is Phnom Penh International Airport, accessible on flights from Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong and Saigon. Take an express van from Phnom Penh to Sen Monorom for US $12.

TOURS
Hefalump Café Mondulkiri's responsible tourism hub. facebook.com/hefalumpcafe; overnight tours of Jahoo Gibbon Camp from US$140 per person for a group of four.

STAY
Nature Lodge Private bungalows with hilltop views of grazing ponies and sheep. naturelodgecambodia.com; doubles from US$18.

 

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At the Seima Wildlife Sanctuary in Mondulkiri.
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