Can ‘Gibbon-watching’ Save Cambodia’s Forests?

Disneynature’s newest film “Monkey Kingdom” — narrated by Tina Fey — is in theaters now. Each year for Earth Day, Disneynature releases a feature film about a different kind of animal and donates a portion of the film’s opening week sales to a designated nonprofit.

northern yellow-cheeked crested gibbon in Cambodia

Northern yellow-cheeked crested gibbon in Cambodia. The largest-known population of this species was discovered in the country’s Veun Sai region in 2010. (© Conservation International/photo by Sterling Zumbrunn)

This year, Conservation International is honored to be that recipient. Funds raised will support three projects:  one in Indonesia where CI is working with local communities to protect and restore forests that are home to the endangered Javan gibbon and help provide water to 30 million people; one in Sri Lanka where CI is collaborating with local organizations to fund scientific research, tree-planting, community engagement and the creation of new conservation areas; and one in Cambodia where CI is supporting forest rangers and a project centered on a rare population of the northern yellow-cheeked crested gibbon. This blog provides a closer look at the work in Cambodia.

In the northeast of Cambodia lies the Veun Sai-Siem Pang Conservation Area, a 55,000 hectare (136,000-acre) protected forest that is wonderfully unique due to its variety and concentration of wildlife. Within this forest, scientists have discovered an iridescent lizard and a tube-nosed bat found nowhere else on Earth — as well as the largest known population of the northern yellow-cheeked crested gibbon.

This population of about 500 gibbons was discovered in 2010 by a team of researchers from CI and Fauna & Flora International. To discover such a large mammal in healthy numbers highlights the health of this forest and indicates that it probably holds many more biological treasures not yet known to people.

waiting to hear gibbons call at sunrise, Veun Sai, Cambodia

Visitors wait to hear the gibbons call at sunrise in the Veun Sai forest. (© Kristin Harrison & Jeremy Ginsberg)

However, due to the huge market for luxury timber in Cambodia and abroad, middlemen for big business put massive pressure on Cambodian communities living in the fringes of the country’s few forests that still contain valuable trees to join in the illegal logging activities.

All four luxury timber species that used to exist in Veun Sai are gone; loggers continue to harvest other large trees. A single tree can sell for around US$ 20,000, which is equivalent to over 15 years of earnings for the average Cambodian.

In a region that is home to some of Cambodia’s poorest people, this temptation is hard to resist, and has driven many into a dangerous criminal underworld, putting them at risk of persecution and personal harm. The presence of loggers in the depths of the jungle has also led to increased hunting of wildlife and severe degradation of some of Cambodia’s last original rainforest.

To fight this crisis and encourage greater understanding of the value of protecting this ecosystem, CI is working with local communities and the government to find ways of improving livelihoods so that illegal activity and consequent forest degradation is not the only option. We also support research to better understand and value the role of these animals within the ecosystem, such as a recent study on the gibbon’s role as a seed disperser and the importance of this activity to keep the forest healthy.

Most significantly, we have developed a community-led project where travelers can view gibbons in their native habitat, a truly unique experience.

tour guide, Veun Sai, Cambodia

Tour guide in Veun Sai, Cambodia. (© Nola Lee Kelsey)

To reach the site, you ride on the back of a motorbike — with your guide at the helm — over small bridges, through classic Cambodian rice paddies, past villages and into the jungle. At base camp, you meet the full team (myself and local people employed by the project) and enjoy a simple Cambodian meal prepared by our cook. You can then explore the forest and see tropical birds, flowers, towering trees, and if you’re lucky other species too.

Typically it’s early to bed, so you can be ready to rise just after 3 a.m. to bushwhack through the forest at great speeds, following our enthusiastic guides who use the call of the gibbon at dawn to locate the group. Once found, you will watch these majestic “lesser apes” as they go about their morning activities in the tree canopy. These gibbons are quite comfortable with human presence; sometimes they let you get fewer than 15 meters (50 feet) away.

This project provides jobs to the local people, and a portion of the earnings goes to community improvement projects. The project has already supported the construction of a new bridge, three new schools and zero-interest businesses loans to support local entrepreneurs.

bridge built through tourism revenue in Veun Sai region, Cambodia

Bridge supported by revenue from travelers who took gibbon tours in Veun Sai. The bridge provides local villagers with access to Veun Sai town, where they can buy goods. (© Conservation International/photo by Chanthon Cheb)

If you know anyone traveling to our part of the world that would be interested in visiting Veun Sai, please let them know about our program. And if visiting is not an option, please go see “Monkey Kingdom” before April 23rd. Funds raised from tickets sales will be used to conserve this important forest and the creatures that live there, and on helping the local people find long-term livelihoods that are in harmony with nature.

Chanthon Cheb is the field project coordinator for CI Cambodia. Read other blogs about “Monkey Kingdom.”

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