Conservation in Cambodia

by Phillip J. Edwards, from OBC Bulletin 27, June 1998.

Introduction In February 1969 the first bombs fell from a US B-52 bomber over eastern Cambodia, and over the next four years huge quantities were dropped on the country, resulting in a civil war which continues to this day. The Khmer Rouge, a previously ineffective guerrilla movement, occupied Phnom Penh in April 1975 two weeks before Saigon fell to the communist Vietnamese. What followed was one of the most infamous social engineering experiments ever devised. Cities were forcibly evacuated, currency abolished, hospitals and schools closed, and anyone of intellectual standing was executed. Between two and three million people are believed to have died before the Vietnamese overthrew the regime in 1978. Despite recent defections, conflict continues between the Khmer Rouge and government forces.

In Cambodia recent history dominates everything including nature conservation. The flooded bomb craters around the airport are one of the first things you notice upon arrival, but the legacy of the war is all around, not least in the 40 million landmines estimated to have been laid. As such, physical access to the countryside is extremely limited and continuing hostilities place limits on conservation activities. Moreover, the mass execution of intellectuals has led to a shortage of educated people to implement government policies and time is thus needed to establish the base of experience that most other countries take for granted.

Sarus Crane  © Patrick Bierens

Sarus Crane © Patrick Bierens

Cambodia covers an area of 181,035 square km of continental South-East Asia bordered by Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. It has a short coastline of only 435 km. The Mekong River and the Tonlé Sap dominate the country's hydrology and there are two groups of mountains those in the east comprising the western slope of the Annamite Chain while those in the south-west are the isolated highlands of the Elephant and Cardomom Mountains. From studies carried out before the war it appears that Cambodia may support about 212 species of mammal, 720 bird species, 240 reptiles species and over 2,300 species of vascular plants (1,2). The country is regionally immensely important for its biodiversity because, unlike its neighbours, natural habitats remain relatively abundant, particularly lowland forests and wetlands which have been reduced or greatly modified elsewhere.

Cambodia contains the largest extent of natural forest in continental South-East Asia (3). These support an abundance of wildlife featuring a wide range of mammals including cats, bears, primates, elephant, rhinoceroses, native cattle and deer. The fauna includes a number of species that have greatly declined or become extinct in neighbouring countries and, given the lack of comprehensive surveys, may even include rare species new to the country, e.g. douc langur, Pygathrix nemaeus, or even to science, e.g. the 'khting sipu' (snake-eating deer), horns of which have been discovered in north-east Cambodia.

Nevertheless, this habitat is rapidly disappearing. In 1965 forest cover was estimated at 13.2 million ha (73% of the land area), but by 1991 this had declined to 11.2 million ha or 62% of the land area (4). While early exploitation of Cambodia's forests was light, the rate of deforestation between the early 1960s and late 1980s is thought to have been 50,000 to 100,000 ha per annum (5). The forests in the eastern part of the country suffered severe damage during the war and substantial deforestation took place during the Khmer Rouge Government. In 1985 timber export resumed, and substantial areas of forest were cleared, particularly along roadsides to deter guerrilla attacks.

Currently, the main factors contributing to the loss of forest habitats are continuing internal hostilities, logging (both commercial concessions and illegal operations), shifting cultivation, and fuel collection. Data on the extent of these activities are sparse, although since the late 1980s logging has increased dramatically, particularly through concessions to foreign companies from Malaysia and Indonesia. It is estimated that roundwood production during 1989-91 showed a 27% increase on that for 1979-81 (6). Legal exports of wood products are believed to be matched, if not exceeded, by illegal exports, mainly to Thailand (7).

Over 30% of Cambodia is classified as wetland, a proportion second in Asia only to Bangladesh (3) and much is reported to be in a near-pristine condition. Over 20% (36,500 km2) meets accepted criteria for classification as internationally important, comprising over 5% of all Asia's wetlands in this category (8). Key amongst these are the Mekong river and its floodplain, Tonlé Sap and its floodplain, the Stung Sen, and the coastal estuaries of the Stung Kaôh Pao and Stung Kep. Cambodia is strongly tied to wetlands both culturally and economically. The central part of the country which supports the bulk of the population is essentially one large wetland and has been exploited for centuries to provide fish and rice the staples of the local diet. This wetland is the Tonlé Sap, the largest floodplain lake in the world, with a unique hydrological system of reversed flow during the wet season. On the coast, Cambodia holds probably the most extensive and important mangrove forests in the Gulf of Thailand.

Cambodia's wetlands are currently threatened by a variety of human activities including drainage for agriculture; agricultural pollution from fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides; over-exploitation of fisheries and fuel wood resources; mining activities; and the side effects of deforestation such as increased siltation. Data are hard to source. WRI(6) suggests that 45% of Cambodia's pre-agricultural wetlands have been lost, as have 5% of the original area of mangrove. Although these figures may be inaccurate, they can be compared with WRI figures for neighbouring countries 96% wetland loss and 87% mangrove loss for Thailand; 99% and 62% for Vietnam and serve to reinforce the importance of the country's wetland resources. Claims are made regarding diminishing fish catches from the Tonlé Sap but no systematic statistics are available. Over-exploitation of certain species does seem to have occurred the giant catfish, a main channel migrant endemic to the Mekong, is reportedly extinct in Cambodia. There are also unsubstantiated reports of widespread use of persistent organochlorine insecticides such as DDT. If the use of these chemicals is as widespread as locally reported, their accumulation in aquatic systems and bioconcentration in large organisms, particularly large waterbirds, many of which are globally rare or endangered, represents the most insidious threat currently facing Cambodia's wetlands.

Hunting and the wildlife trade
While habitat destruction is the single greatest threat to biodiversity in Cambodia, the trade in wildlife and its associated products also holds potentially grave implications for the continued survival of certain species. In addition to subsistence hunting of wild animals and foraging of wild plants, large-scale exploitation appears to cover the whole range of uses with wildlife and products appearing in wild game markets, medicinal markets, wildlife restaurants, and being used for decorative and religious purposes. Of particular concern is that, despite prohibitions, a flourishing illegal export trade exists with neighbouring countries (9,10). Trade appears greatest in border areas, many of which are not under government control. Distribution systems seem to function effectively with little or no interference from border controls. Much of the trade going to Laos ends up in Thailand and that going to Vietnam is destined for China.

Mammals traded include tiger, Panthera tigris, leopard, P. pardus, clouded leopard, Neofelis nebulosa, Asian elephant, Elephus maximus, Asiatic black bear, Selenarctos thibetanus, Malayan sun bear, Helarctos malayanus, pangolin, Manis javanica, banteng, Bos javanicus, and gaur, B. gaurus, as well as reptiles (e.g. Siamese crocodile, Crocodylus siamensis, reticulated python, Python reticulatus, and various freshwater turtles), and birds (e.g. Sarus Crane, Grus antigone, and, at least historically, Giant Ibis, Pseudibis gigantea). The population of tiger in Cambodia is currently estimated at 300 animals. However, around two or three tigers are being killed each month in Cambodia for the international wildlife trade and conservationists estimate that as many as 100-150 tigers could have been poached in Cambodia since 1990 (11). A report by the Director of Forestry (D. Ashwell verbally) indicates that herds of around 200 Asian elephants have been shot out, while figures from recent aerial surveys by IUCN imply a decline in the national population of banteng from about 5,000 animals in the 1950s, to only 1,000-2,000 today (D. Ashwell verbally). Mundkur et al report wild birds and reptiles on sale in the Oressey Market in Phnom Penh (12), and in provincial town and village markets, counting 978 birds of over 28 species including the globally threatened Spot-billed Pelican, Pelecanus philippensis, Greater, Leptoptilos dubius, and Lesser Adjutants, L. javanicus, and Black-headed Ibis, Threskiornis melanocephalus. Signs of trade were evident in October 1995 in Siem Reap where Spot-billed Pelican, Sarus Crane, Greater Adjutant, Painted Stork, Mycteria leucocephala, and Green Peafowl, Pavo muticus, were all being kept as pets by the local Forestry Department, having been confiscated from local traders on their way to Phnom Penh. In January 1996 large numbers of commoner water birds such as Purple Swamphen, Porphyrio porphyrio, Slaty-breasted Rail, Gallirallus striatus, and Moorhen, Gallinula chloropus, were routinely on sale in the markets in Sihanoukville and at roadside stalls.

Protected areas
In 1925 Cambodia became the first country in South-East Asia to declare a national park 10,800 ha of forest around the temple city of Angkor. In November 1993, His Majesty King Norodom Sihanouk issued a decree entitled 'The Creation and Designation of Protected Areas' which designated 23 areas as national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, protected landscapes, or multiple-use areas. These total 3,327,200 ha or about 19% of the land surface, one of the highest proportions in South-East Asia. The critical shortage of resources means that of the 23 protected areas defined in the Royal Decree, only two have so far been inaugurated Preah Suramarit-Kossomak (Kirirom) and Preah Sihanouk (Ream) National Parks between Phnom Penh and the coast, although the Ministry of Environment intends to inaugurate Phnom Bokor and Kep National Parks and Lomphat Wildlife Sanctuary shortly. Once inaugurated, some resources are directed towards putting guards on the ground, developing management plans, and establishing facilities, although lack of financial resources hampers all these operations.

International designations
Cambodia is also on the point of formally acceding to the Ramsar Convention. The necessary legislation has been passed by both Houses of Parliament and is awaiting the signature of the King. Three sites were identified, and are proposed, for designation on accession Boeng Chhma, a freshwater site on the northern shore of the Tonlé Sap; Kaôh Kapik, a mangrove site on the coast close to the Thai border; and a stretch of the Mekong River in the north of the country (13). Aerial and boat surveys of the Tonlé Sap in March and April 1994 encountered breeding colonies of the globally endangered Greater Adjutant, the globally vulnerable Lesser Adjutant and Spot-billed Pelican, and the near-threatened Painted Stork and Black-headed Ibis. Important feeding areas for these, plus the globally vulnerable Milky Stork, Mycteria cinereus, and near-threatened Asian Openbill, Anastomus oscitans, Black-necked Stork, Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus, and Oriental Darter, Anhinga melanogaster, along with numerous ibises, egrets, herons, bitterns and cormorants, were also located.12 Further surveys in January 1996 re-discovered White-winged Duck, Cairina scutulata, in Cambodia at Boeng Chhma with three males and three females present the first sighting in the country since the early 1960s. Also present were Oriental Darter, Spot-billed Pelican, the near-threatened Grey-headed Fishing Eagle, Ichthyophaga ichthyaetus (14) and a single Eastern White Pelican, Pelecanus onocrotalus, a species whose continued presence in Cambodia was thought doubtful (12).

At Kaôh Kapik during the same survey, three species were recorded in Cambodia for the first time Nordmann's Greenshank, Tringa guttifer, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Limicola falcinellus, and Lesser Crested Tern, Sterna benghalensis. The most significant of these is the first where 13 individuals were recorded making this what is believed to be the fifth highest site count anywhere in the world to date (15). Broad-billed Sandpiper was also present in internationally important numbers with between 190 and 400 being counted. These records, plus high numbers of six other species, have meant that the site has also been added to the East Asia Australasian Shorebird Reserve Network as a site that will receive full recognition once resources are available to manage it properly. Unfortunately at present, despite it lying within the Peam Krasop Wildlife Sanctuary, the site is seriously threatened by illegal logging, mostly for the production of charcoal.

Cambodia possesses a wealth of wildlife in its extensive forests and wetlands. The relative political stability enjoyed by the country since 1992 has meant that these forests and wetlands are being opened up to greater exploitation of their resources with the inevitable detrimental consequences to that wildlife. However, simultaneously there is a great political will to make conservation work alongside the increasing economic growth. The protected area network is to be commended, and although still largely a paper exercise through a critical shortage of resources, the King's Decree is respected and the protected areas have been excluded from the various logging concessions recently let. Government resources are being directed to conservation issues both at policy level and on the ground. The Ministry of Environment is being assisted by various organisations in different ways. IUCN The World Conservation Union has been instrumental in establishing the protected areas and is heavily involved in management planning and training; Wetlands International is co-operating with the government in developing a Wetland Action Plan for the kingdom; and the World Bank is in the final stages of completing a National Environment Action Plan which will assist future large-scale investment. The opportunities for ecotourism are being actively pursued at certain sites and the possibility of birders being able to visit more than just Angkor in this beautiful and friendly country may soon be a reality. But unlike elsewhere in South-East Asia, it is doubtful that the forests will be open for birding for many years, if ever the ubiquity of the landmines will see to that.

Parts of the above article are taken from reports produced by the author for the World Bank and Wetlands International Asia Pacific. I am grateful to both organisations for their permission to reproduce this material here.


  1. UNDP (1994), Global Environment Facility Project Brief. UNDP, Phnom Penh.

  2. Ashwell, D. (1994) State of the environment - Cambodia's biological diversity. Unpubl. paper submitted as IUCN contribution to State of the Environment Report (Ministry of Environment).

  3. Le Billion, P. 1994a. Current status of Cambodian wildlife conservation. Unpubl. paper.

  4. Thung, H. l. (1994) Forest cover of Cambodia using Landstat TM satellite imagery.

  5. Ashwell, D. (1992) General conservation issues and programming opportunities for natural resource management in Cambodia. Report prepared for IUCN, Gland.

  6. World Resources Institute (1994), World resources 1994-1995: a guide to the global environment. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

  7. Sing Meng Srun (No date) Forestry in Cambodia. The past, the present and the future. Unpubl. paper.

  8. Asian Wetlands Bureau (1995) Wetland Action Plan for the Kingdom of Cambodia. Unpubl. draft document.

  9. Broad, S. & Phipps, M. (1994) Guidance on the accession of the Kingdom of Cambodia to CITES. Unpubl. draft report. TRAFFIC SE Asia.

  10. Phipps, M. (1994) Untitled and unpublished paper for TRAFFIC, SE Asia.

  11. Kemf, E. (1995) The "forgotten" tigers of Indochina. WWF information leaflet.

  12. Mundkur, T., Carr, P., Sun Hean & Chhim Somean. (1995), Surveys for large waterbirds in Cambodia, March-April 1994. IUCN Species Survival Commission. Gland.

  13. Davies, J. D. (1994) Wetland surveys in Cambodia to identify sites of international importance. Asian Wetland Bureau & SSE, Royal Government of Cambodia. Unpubl. draft final report.

  14. Edwards, P. J. (1996) Cambodia wetlands: ornithological survey. Unpubl. report to Wetlands International Asia Pacific. Xenus Ecology #XEN/J-9/01.

  15. Collar, N. J., Crosby, M. J. & Stattersfield A. J. (1994), Birds to watch 2: the world list of threatened birds. BirdLife International, Cambridge.

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