How does a mountain-loving, wolverine-obsessed northern girl end up in a sweltering, flat country where the monsoon floods the forests during the rainy season, and the sun bakes the land into a red brick shell during the dry season? Cambodia is small, densely populated, and poor; the generation currently in the workforce is still recovering from the Khmer Rouge and the years of civil war that followed. The country is known for the splendor of its ancient history and the unspeakable horror of its recent past – the temples of Angkor and the violence of the war are equally incomparable and breathtaking, although at opposites ends of the spectrum of human potential. These two poles dominate most people’s perceptions of the country. In popular imagination, it’s not a place for those who crave wilderness, solitude, and escape from human folly.
Less well known is the fact that Cambodia’s ecosystems once rivaled the Serengeti. Bas reliefs at the Bayon temple at Angkor Thom depict Cambodia’s forest in the 12th century, at the height of the Angkorian empire. Interspersed with scenes of war and daily life are scenes of Sarus cranes dancing in courtship, a rhinoceros parading through the forest, crocodiles consuming fish, monkeys stealing food from marching soldiers, wild peacocks spreading their tails, elephants tending their babies, a giant catfish with a half-swallowed deer between its jaws. The forests of Southeast Asia, deciduous dipterocarp interspersed with tracts of broadleaf evergreen and vast sweeps of open grassland, teemed – as recently as the 1960’s – with ungulates, including four species of wild cattle: the banteng, the gaur, the wild water buffalo, and the kouprey. Elephants, Eld’s deer, roe deer, leaf deer, and rhinoceros roamed the swampy grasslands. Tigers, leopards, leopard cats, fishing cats, dholes, sun bears, pythons, and cobras hunted through the forest, and binturongs, gibbons, macaques, civets, and giant squirrels leapt through the canopy. Pangolins and monitor lizards crept through the leaves and swam in the waterways. The forests and the seasonal pools were filled with countless bird species, and the waterways writhed with fish. Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake is still the richest freshwater fishery in Southeast Asia; once, it was once home to crocodiles and 600-pound giant catfish.
Rhinoceros, vulture, and wild cattle species, the Bayon, Angkor Thom, Cambodia.
The vibrant, sprawling ecosystem depicted on Cambodia’s temples exists now only in stone. The rhinoceros declined before the 20th century, hunted for the medicinal trade. The rest of Cambodia’s wildlife was nearly wiped out during the war, when hungry soldiers and villagers killed what they could for food. While the civil war raged, the Khmer Rouge logged the forest in order to finance their lunatic crusade. The remaining wildlife, valuable in Thailand and in China, was killed for body parts that were traded along the same routes as smuggled guns, drugs, and human slaves. By the time the war ended in 1999, a number of species were believed to have gone extinct. For some – the giant ibis, the Siamese crocodile – reprieves came when scientists discovered marginal populations holding out in remote locations. Others, like the kouprey, haven’t been seen since. Scattered populations of banteng and gaur still occupy the forest, and one small herd of water buffalo has been located in the east. There are perhaps a hundred wild elephants left, and maybe fewer than ten tigers. The giant catfish are gone from the Tonle Sap, but a few hold on in the Mekong, along with a tiny group of freshwater dolphins. Cambodians have big problems, and conservation is not an overarching concern for illiterate people struggling to feed their families. The rich, wild world of the ancient forests is grievously diminished, and there is little space for it to recover as long as the human population remains so desperate.
Forest scene, Banteay Srei temple, Cambodia.
I walked into the Cambodian conservation world in 2003, spending a year and half working on community-based conservation projects on the Tonle Sap and, later, in the forests of Preah Vihear province in the north. I picked up enough Khmer to get along, and although the country never captured my heart the way Mongolia did, I was in awe of the wildlife and of the small group of individuals struggling to protect it. With the exception of wolverine biologists, I’ve never met a more committed group of people.
By the time I left Cambodia in 2004, I knew that my place was in the north, where the mountains and the steppe and the boreal forest spoke to me in a way that the tropics never will. But in autumn of 2010, a few weeks after I returned from Mongolia, I got a call from an organization working on a climate change mitigation project in Cambodia. The Cambodian project partners included some of the same people I’d worked with in 2003, and the organization wanted me to consider a six-month position to facilitate the project. I told them no; I couldn’t imagine interrupting the momentum of my wolverine work to do something completely unrelated. But a few days later they called back, asking me to reconsider.
The project was a REDD effort, and this swayed me. REDD is an international program to create carbon markets in order to protect forests and lower greenhouse gas levels – the acronym stands for ‘reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation,” and includes protecting standing forest as well as reforesting degraded areas. REDD projects around the world are trying to bring monetary benefits from intact forests back to communities and governments that otherwise might simply log the forests. Without getting into the gritty details of how REDD works (or has failed to work, so far…), the focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions through forest preservation provided the necessary connection to my broader objectives of wildlife conservation.
Some of you may have noticed a certain desperate tone in many of these blog entries; the wolverine narrative seems essentially hopeless, because the problem of climate change is so massive, and we as a society so utterly lack the will to address it. This sense of hopelessness extends to all of the climate sensitive wildlife out there, not to mention the snowbound landscapes of places like Glacier National Park and the high pastures of the Mongolian communities where I work. We are going to lose so much in the fallout from our political squabbles, and no matter how hard I try to maintain a rational, optimistic outlook, there are days when that huge question – why aren’t we doing something about this? – leaves me in despair.
I write about how we need to change things on a massive scale, but the precise program for doing that has never been clear, and that’s part of what makes conservation of climate sensitive wildlife so overwhelming. The organization was offering me an opportunity to be part of exactly what I’d been calling for – a global-scale effort to reduce emissions, to shift our paradigm to consider worldwide ecosystem effects, and to bring conservation benefits directly back to communities. I spoke Khmer, I had a specific skill set for working in Cambodia, and suddenly it seemed like an opportunity to actually do something about the problem I kept lamenting. A month later, I was on my way to Siem Reap.
Six months were enough to see that the creation of carbon markets isn’t going to happen quickly, but that it does have potential. If it’s going to happen, though, all of us are going to have to be content with playing small parts, and all of us are going to have to put aside our pet theories and prejudices if we’re serious about making it function. Carbon markets are a massive interdisciplinary effort, involving illiterate villagers, local and national governments, environmental activists, hardcore scientists, economists, stockbrokers, and global corporations. Stop and think, for a minute, about what it takes to get all of these groups to understand each other, let alone actually work towards a shared goal. Are these issues irreconcilable? Let’s hope not. But we have a long way to go.
Cambodia may or may not be the ideal test case for pioneering carbon sales, but with a large percentage of forest cover, it’s worth the attempt. It’s worth it for wolverines, pikas, polar bears, and all of our northern wildlife, and it’s worth it for Cambodia’s incredible array of species as well. It’s worth it for Cambodia’s many forest-dependent human communities too, communities that are too frequently steamrolled under the greed of those with access to natural resource concessions. Whatever the complexities and challenges, the push to create a new system of valuing ecosystem services is necessary for wildlife and for humans. I don’t know if the past six months have truly done anything for wolverines – maybe, over the long term, the preservation of the Cambodian forest will keep a few more inches of snow on the ground somewhere in the Rockies, or maybe not – but I’m glad to have been a part of it. Seeing the carvings on the Bayon evokes a feeling of profound grief for what has been lost, and something close to fury that previous generations were so careless with the creatures of this world. I hope that I’ve played some small part in reversing a terrible historical trend, so that future generations won’t have to feel the same sense of loss.
Giant catfish swallowing deer (or goat), the Bayon, Angkor Thom, Cambodia.
Still, noble intentions for the future of humanity and the planet only take you so far. My entire time in Cambodia was a massive countdown to returning to the work that I truly love. I’m glad to be back in Mongolia and I’ve reaffirmed that my part in this is to be on the ground in the communities and ecosystems where I am most inspired. So from here on, it’s back to the North.
Many thanks to all the people who made my Cambodian experiences so rich, fun, and rewarding beyond the parameters of work. You are a great community, I wish everyone tremendous success, and you are all, always, welcome in Mongolia, the American West, or wherever my work takes me next. Ahkon cheraan, teng-ot k’nia!
Young monk and pig-tailed macaque, confiscated from villagers and soon to be released back into the forest, Oddar Meanchey province, Cambodia. Buddhist monks can be a tremendous force for conservation, and many are working to protect the forest in Cambodia.