Cambodia’s Rangers Risk Lives Protecting Environment

The 20 or so very fit men gathered deep in the forests of northeast Cambodia at the Tropaing Tear Base in the Srepok Wildlife Sanctuary.On their uniforms, a patch richly embroidered with the map of Cambodia and its protected landscapes, elephants, tigers, one of the national flowers and the Ministry of Environment logo did little to counter their overall don’t-mess-with-us attitude.“I live in the forest more than my home,” said Reth Phearun, a 26-year-old ranger who commands the Chas Yang Base in the Srepok Wildlife Sanctuary. Half a century ago, the region rivaled the East African savannah for its diversity and abundance of wildlife — banteng, Asian elephants, Eld’s deer, Indochinese tigers, leopards and more.Today, those beasts exist in critically low numbers, but the recent and increased protection effort “leaves hope that, at some point in the future” wildlife populations in the region “can be restored to their former glory,” Reth Phearun, park ranger, speaks to VOA Khmer in Cambodia’s wildlife sanctuary in Mondulkiri province’s Koh Nhek district on Jan. 17, 2021. (Oun Chheng Por/VOA)Nationwide, Cambodia employs some 1,200 rangers to guard endangered species on more than 7.3 million hectares of protected forests, according to the Ministry of Environment. In the critical 6,000-square-kilometer bioregion of the Srepok and Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary, there are just 51 rangers, 46 wildlife guards and 588 community patrol teams.These vast areas swallow this protection. In Mondulkiri province, there is less than one ranger per 100 square kilometers, far below the international standard of eight rangers for that amount of territory.Although few Cambodians want to become rangers, those who do see the job as a calling, putting themselves in danger and sacrificing home life.The rangers patrol Srepok Wildlife Sanctuary four times a month on trips over four days and three nights, according to Reth Phearun.“It is very challenging at night in some areas. We get no sleep at night, and must help each other patrol until morning,” he said.Reth Phearun worries about encounters with poachers and loggers, saying, “If they see us, they will definitely shoot us. They are not afraid of us at all.”One of his colleagues, Cheng Chanty, was sleeping near a creek in the Srepok Wildlife Sanctuary when poachers arrived around 3 a.m.  Jan. 29, 2019.“They were on motorbikes,” said Cheng Chanty, 42. “We told them to stop, but they didn’t. We followed them and they shot at us. I was shot in my front abdomen and the bullet went through to my buttock.”  The wound took four months to heal.Park rangers show forest patrols to reporters in Cambodia’s Srepok Wildlife Sanctuary in Koh Nhek district Mondulkiri on Jan. 17, 2021. (Oun Chheng Por/VOA)All of the alleged poachers remain at large. Cheng Chanty remains on the job.The attack on Cheng Chanty was not unusual.An Environment Ministry ranger, a Wildlife Conservation Society staffer and a military police officer were killed by Cambodian armed forces aligned with illegal loggers Park rangers show forest patrols to reporters in Cambodia’s Srepok Wildlife Sanctuary in Koh Nhek district Mondulkiri on Jan. 17, 2021. (Oun Chheng Por/VOA)His solution is to take one day off “when I miss my son,” he said.Kroeurng Tola, a representative of the Bunong indigenous community, acknowledged the rangers’ efforts but said they are limited.An activist who exposes misuse of natural reserves, Kroeurng Tola said, “Our rangers have strong will in protecting the forest and wildlife, but their job is still being limited when there are orders from the higher level not to arrest any culprit.”Reth Phearun remains passionate about protecting the forests and its endangered wildlife.”I want to improve my (ranger) base” with a bigger building fully supplied with electricity and linked into the mobile network, he said, adding a better road to improve accessibility and more rangers would be good, too.“I want to see wildlife and forest increase” he said. “And I want to see tourists coming in and out in the future. If there are tourists, we will benefit from them.”

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