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Connecting forests, wildlife and people: @Wild’s practices initiated in Cambodia
Deep in the semi-evergreen monsoon forest in Choam Ksant Forest Landscape, camera traps have been set up to capture the movements of protected wild fauna. The 376,941 ha forest landscape serves as habitat for more than 300 species of mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles and houses more than 6,000 rural households whose livelihoods depend on the natural resources provided. Exploring a good balance among local livelihood improvement, habitat protection and wildlife conservation is thus crucial to this area, which is being increasingly challenged by forest degradation and fragmentation. In a first step to address this issue, APFNet, under its @Wild initiative, launched a baseline review project at the beginning of this year, aiming to assess the current status of forest and key wildlife species and investigate human activity impact on the forest ecosystem. 
 
Figure 1 Field practice on camera trap setting and data recording
 

Reviewing the baseline

“One of the best-known ways to impart a connection with the environment within people is to provide opportunities for everyone to experience it firsthand,” Mr. Pang Phanith, who led the preparation of the Wild fauna survey manual for the project, told trainees. This manual provides precise practical skills to guide local forestry officers and rangers in conducting wild fauna surveys effectively. In May, hands-on training was given to staff from the Forestry Administration of Choam Ksant District in using the manual to conduct wild fauna surveys, especially with regard to tracking and monitoring of particular species. 

Meanwhile, the latest assessment on the current status of forest degradation and deforestation has been completed. It revealed that from 2014 to 2020 the area lost 28,658 ha of forest cover (around 7.6 percent) with an average annual change rate of -1.26 percent. Although the figure appears to be slightly better than the annual change rate of forest area in Cambodia from 2010 to 2020 (estimated at -2.68 percent according to the Global Forest Resources Assessment 2020), it is still a worrying trend that needs substantial efforts to reverse given the importance of the wildlife habitat. The assessment suggested that clear demarcation of boundaries for different forest land use, strengthening of law enforcement, improving the efficiency of interaction with other relevant sectors and promoting intensive monitoring could be immediate actions to implement. 

 

 

Balancing conservation with human needs

Effective wildlife conservation is much more than just focusing on wildlife – paying attention to the lives of local people is equally important. Conservation efforts will only work if local communities are integrated into the project, otherwise it will be an exercise in futility.


Figure 2 Instructing local villagers on how to fill out socioeconomic questionnaires

 

In this context, a survey on reviewing the current socioeconomic status of local communities and assessing human activity impacts on the forest landscape was conducted as a fundamental project component. The survey revealed that the poverty rate among all eight communes within Choam Ksant Forest Landscape was nearly 23 percent. At least 43 percent of the households had to obtain loans from local banks to make up for shortfalls in their daily expenses. Unfavourable climate conditions and lack of water resources hinder the local villagers from carrying out agricultural activities during the lengthy dry season even in terms of short-term planting. Otherwise, suboptimal skills in cultivation and stock raising result in low crop and livestock production. 

 

Apart from agricultural production issues, poor sanitation, insufficient education and lack of employment opportunities have also been forcing impoverished residents to enter the forests, which are perceived as a natural supermarket with abundance of harvestable timber and non-timber forest products (NTFPs) that also offer free nutrition. The data indicate that firewood collection, forest clearance and charcoal production are practiced by almost every commune with an average of 10 to 30 cubic metres of wood cut by each household annually. Meanwhile, there are 11 major types of NTFPs, including wild mushrooms, spiders, resin and latex, bamboo shoots, medicinal plants and so forth that are on the shopping lists of local villagers and many of the NTFPs have been overexploited. The impact of these human activities has already started to tear apart the fragile ecological fabric of this biome. 

 

Under these circumstances, local people’s needs shall be fully recognized and considered when planning wildlife conservation activities. Underscored by the survey, there is an urgent need to improve local livelihoods for easing the burden on the forests and promoting community participation in landscape protection and management. Enhancing agricultural knowledge and measures for delivering competitive agricultural products are the fundamental solutions. Establishing small-scale nurseries, developing high-yield agroforestry systems and promoting community ecotourism could be potential practical activities that would lay a basis for larger-scale developments later.