It’s a good week for gibbons! On Monday we announced the discovery of the largest population of northern white-cheeked crested gibbon (Nomascus leucogenys) in Vietnam. Today, CI primatologist Ben Rawson blogs about another gibbon species across the border in Cambodia — and what the opening of a new ranger station could mean for its protection.
In northeastern Cambodia, near the border with Laos and Vietnam, lies the Veun Sai-Siem Pang (VSSP) Conservation Area, home to part of the largest population of the northern buff-cheeked crested gibbon (Nomascus annamensis) left in the country. This newly-discovered species is already disappearing across its range, and while officially protected by law, the population in this forest has not been sufficiently protected…until now.
Earlier this month, CI and the Cambodian Forestry Administration opened the region’s first ranger station deep in the VSSP Conservation Area. Set to bolster the protection of gibbons and other threatened species, this is the latest stage of CI’s partnership with the Cambodian government to protect this ecologically significant area from increasing human threats. A Buddhist ceremony marked the station’s opening, providing blessing for the protection for the station and success of the program. Government representatives, local community members, enforcement staff, international researchers, donors and CI staff all attended the event.
Comprising an area of over 55,000 hectares (136,000 acres), VSSP Conservation Area comprises tall evergreen, semievergreen, deciduous and dry dipterocarp forests, interspersed with grasslands and marsh. This huge variety in habitat in turn supports large species diversity. Home to some of Cambodia’s most fascinating and threatened animals, the protected area is the only location in Cambodia where the red-shanked douc langur (Pygathrix nemaeus), probably the world’s most beautiful primate, still occurs in large numbers.
It also hosts a population of giant ibis (Thaumatibis gigantea) — Cambodia’s national bird — of which there are only 200 animals remaining. Packs of dhole (Cuon alpines), a rare wild dog, still roam, along with wandering sun bears (Ursus malayanus), clouded leopards (Neofelis nebulosa) and golden cats (Pardofelis temminckii). On night treks, I often see pygmy loris (Nycticebus pygmaeus) gripping the trees, their eyeshine reflecting back from my headlamp. The stillness of predawn walks through the forest to monitor the gibbons singing high in the trees are some of the most beautiful moments I have experienced.
VSSP Conservation Area is part of one of Cambodia’s largest remaining blocks of forest — a vital watershed to the Mekong River which stands in the path of a wave of deforestation. Like many forests in Asia, illegal activities are increasingly damaging this forest. External markets drive illegal hunting and logging for luxury timber, while small-scale agriculture chips away at the edges of the forest. Tigers were once found here, but in the last few years none have been recorded — a stark reminder of what could happen to other species without increased conservation efforts.
The new ranger station will combat these threats through increased forest patrols, targeted crackdowns on known wildlife traders, partnerships with local communities and education outreach, backed by a solid research program. By dispatching rangers in the field, we’ll receive real-time information on what’s happening out there in terms of illegal activities, so we can adapt our strategy as the situation changes.
Improved enforcement goes hand in hand with improvement of community livelihoods, employment opportunities in forest protection, education and future ecotourism plans — all of which must ensure that local people directly benefit from biodiversity conservation. We are also employing and training a team of researchers from nearby communities to conduct monitoring and research of the site’s biodiversity value in conjunction with international researchers.
Through these efforts, we hope to further demonstrate the need for greater protection of this unique forest.
Ben Rawson is a primatologist and the Veun Sai forest manager for CI’s Greater Mekong Program.