Tigers set for return to Cambodia’s forests in biodiversity coup


A staff member from Wildlife Alliance shows the last tiger caught by a camera trap in Cambodia in 2007. - PPP

PHNOM PENH: In a historic move towards restoring the kingdom’s biodiversity, Cambodia and India have announced that their long-planned collaboration to reintroduce tigers, declared extinct in Cambodia in 2016, has borne fruit, and will see the dark forests of the Cardamom Mountains echo to the roar of the apex predators once again.

The initiative, part of the "Tigers Re-introduction Strategy in Cambodia," aims to revive the majestic species and bolster conservation efforts in the kingdom, one of South-East Asia's most significant ecological regions.

Four tigers will arrive later this year, perhaps as soon as November.

Chea Sam Ang, Ministry of Environment secretary of state, spoke about the historical situation of tigers in Cambodia during a May 23 press conference, held in Phnom Penh to announce the exciting news.

“There are only 14 countries in the world that are home to a wild tiger population. Cambodia used to be home to relatively high numbers of them. Unfortunately, the chronic wars that began in the 1970s and the increase in the illegal trade of animals and their parts led to a steady decline in their presence,” he said.

In Cambodia, the last tiger was spotted by a camera trap in 2007, and the species was declared extinct in 2016.

The reintroduction plan includes releasing four tigers from the Western Ghats mountain range in India into the heart of the Cardamom Mountains, in an area which will be protected to ensure their safe rehabilitation.

“In this first step, we will introduce four tigers, three females and one male from India,” explained Sam Ang.

“If this project is successful, the Cardamom Mountains could be capable of supporting a hundred tigers,” he added.

By restoring lost wildlife, the project also aims to boost the tourism sector, benefiting local communities.

To ensure the tigers' safety and successful acclimatisation, the Ministry of Environment and Wildlife Alliance have set aside 90 hectares of forest land in the Tatai Wildlife Sanctuary, equipped with iron fences, cages, ponds, and wildlife that will allow the big cats to adapt to their new surroundings before they are released into the wider nature reserves.

In order to ensure the harmony of people and wildlife, Sam Ang added that the government will pay close attention to the safety of the people living in the area.

Devyani Khobragade, Indian ambassador to Cambodia, emphasised the global significance of the tiger reintroduction programme.

“This programme is crucial for restoring biodiversity in not just Cambodia, but also for contributing to global biodiversity,” she said.

“It is also a moral duty for all of us present here today,” she added.

India's globally recognised success in tiger conservation, underpinned by robust management strategies and community engagement, serves as a model for the initiative.

"By working together and adhering to global best practices, we can ensure the long-term conservation of endangered species and the preservation of ecosystems for future generations," said Khobragade.

The partnership between India and Cambodia has included extensive exchanges of delegations, as well as capacity-building training for Cambodian forest rangers.

"There will be long-term monitoring of the tiger population integrating into the Cardamom Mountains’ sanctuary," Khobragade said, noting that the first four tigers are expected to arrive in Cambodia this November or December.

“The Tiger Reintroduction Project is a national effort in cooperation with the Indian government, who are helping us through their dedicated departments, including the National Technical Conservation Authority and the Wildlife Institute of India,” said Suwanna Gauntlett, founder and chief executive officer of Wildlife Alliance.

She explained that the project will be managed by the Cambodian Ministry of Environment, the Indian Ministry of Forest and Climate Change and Wildlife Alliance.

The programme will eventually span 1.4 million hectares of forest, with the Cambodian government serving as the primary implementer. Sixteen ranger stations, operating over 17,000sq km, play a crucial role in forest protection.

Gauntlett said since 2002, rangers have conducted 63,837 patrols, addressed 4,108 land encroachment cases, and submitted 2,093 cases to court.

“These efforts have led to the confiscation of 10,218 chainsaws and the dismantling of numerous illegal logging camps and commercial charcoal kilns,” she added.

Gauntlett also addressed the challenge of ongoing deforestation, noting that "Loggers no longer use chainsaws but excavators to clear the forest”.

Wildlife Alliance plans to reforest several areas in Pursat, Koh Kong and Kampong Speu provinces.

Preparations for the tigers' arrival from India are well underway, she added.

“We have zero snares. The 16 ranger stations have done an extraordinary number of patrols since 2002,” she said.

Ongoing conservation efforts in the Cardamoms by Wildlife Alliance have seen 8,297 live animals rescued from snares or traps, while 3,160 instances of dead animals have been recorded.

On World Tiger Day, July 29, 2023, the organisation called for a renewed focus on reintroducing tigers to the Cardamoms, highlighting their essential role in maintaining ecological balance.

Former Prime Minister Hun Sen endorsed the reintroduction plans, declaring them a source of national pride and a reflection of the Kingdom’s commitment to conservation.

A memorandum of understanding (MoU) with India, signed in November 2022, leveraged India's expertise in tiger conservation.

The environment ministry is currently expanding camera trapping in the Cardamom Mountains to ensure a sufficient food supply for the tigers, essential for their successful reintroduction. - The Phnom Penh Post/ANN

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