“The elephants are returning to Chi Phat” our guide Leeheng smiles proudly, waving an outstretched arm across the open plain before us.
“You know, a few years ago there were none here. They got scared by the hunting and the guns and moved away, into Thailand. Now, they’re starting to come back again”. His smile is one of those enthusiastic ones that sweep you along with it, helping to dissipate the memory of the steaming hot jungle-clad incline we’ve been scrambling up for the last hour.
It’s hard to imagine that merely a decade ago, our presence on this peaceful grassy hilltop plain in Cambodia’s Southern Cardamom mountain region would have been impossible at best, deadly at worst. After the collapse of Pol Pot’s murderous communist regime in 1979, his loyal guerrilla fighters quite literally fled for the hills – choosing the thick jungle cover of the Cardamoms as their last stronghold.
What followed was nearly 15 years of violent war and chaos for the region; mines were laid, villages attacked, locals murdered in grisly clashes. When the last of the Khmer Rouge fighters were finally driven from the area, the locals who remained were left impoverished. With few options available for survival, many had no choice but to enter the lucrative poaching and logging trades to support their families.
Surprisingly, despite the ensuing destruction, the 1443 sq km mountain area has remained home to many a rare and endangered species. Big cats, elephants, gibbons, deer, wild pigs, snakes, and the extremely threatened Pangolin have survived amongst some of the most unchartered flora in the world.
A chance at lasting positive change came in the form of an approach to village elders by American-based conservation NGO Wildlife Alliance. Together, they developed big plans for a community-based ecotourism (CBET) project in the Cardamoms and Leeheng’s village, Chi Phat, that set the wheels in motion for Cambodia’s most successful conservation project, transforming the lives of its residents completely.
OUR VISIT TO CAMBODIA’S ECO-TOURISM SUCCESS STORY, CHI PHAT
COMMUNITY-BASED ECOTOURISM IN CAMBODIA
Today, Chi Phat welcomes fighters of a very different kind with open arms; those workers, volunteers, and travellers interested in the battle for environmental conservation. It’s this goal and a promise of world-class hiking that has brought us to our current grassy plain and the first of our three-day hike into the mountains surrounding the village of Chi Phat.
Getting here is half the adventure. It’s a 4-hour bus ride from Phnom Penh to the small highway town of Andoung Tuek, and (having missed the 2-hour boat ride alternative) a white-knuckled 45-minute ride through fields of sugarcane and patches of sand on the back of a local motorbike to this pretty community of 500 families. Colourful bamboo houses on stilts line the two dusty red streets, giggling children wave sous-dey (hello) enthusiastically, and all around us are the genuinely welcoming, happy smiles of locals.
Villagers, like Leeheng, who once roamed the forests in search of a quick payday are now wildlife warriors, now lead educational cycling, kayaking and trekking tours, training as cooks, opening guesthouses, learning English and computer skills, and working together to protect their futures.
Under his knowledgeable eye over the next few days we explore the stunning and diverse ecosystems on offer; thick jungle, mountain ranges, grasslands, lush river systems; eagerly observing animal tracks. We camp in hammocks under the stars and swim in refreshing waterfalls. While we have the time of our lives, we’ll also be supporting a community working tirelessly to protect their environment, helping to provide them with a livelihood far removed from those of their pasts.
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Leeheng opens up about the huge shift he’s seen take place over the last few years. A former hunter (mostly deer, wild pig, and Pangolin) and logger himself, he knows first-hand what it signifies for him and his young family.
“It was hard at first, some people had no choice but hunting or logging – we had to make money.
“Everyone thought they’d lose their income, so only 20% of the community supported it at first. But now almost 100% support it because the tourists come. We have jobs and opportunities again,” he shares.
Not only do they have opportunities again (over 5,000 people have benefited from the creation of sustainable jobs here), they are passionate about sharing their expert knowledge of the area with visitors. That passion has been helped along by intensive conservation and guide training programs established by the CBET and Wildlife Alliance.
We pause regularly to inspect the day-old tracks of a herd of elephants, taste a Tamarind pod, discover a new plant species. We eat a meal made from root vegetables found in the forest and drink water from vines one afternoon. “City people don’t know how to do this,” Leeheng winks, “this is something you grow up learning around here”.
As we eat lunch, sitting cross-legged in the middle of a dry river bed one day, we ask him whether there’s a downside to this huge change. To him it’s extremely simple; “In the past, if I killed a deer I might make $100USD. But now if I bring people here and they don’t see any animals, I feel pretty sad. If someone visits and sees lots of animals, they might tell their friends and encourage other people to come here. Our community could earn $10,000, maybe $20,000 USD instead”, he tells us.
The community is now starting to show signs of prosperity, and it’s obvious that they realise they have a stake in the protection and health of their home. Last year, the community celebrated 10 years of zero elephant poaching in the Southern Cardamom Forest region; a monumental achievement.
We get an incredibly authentic taste of the returning elephants on our second day, when Leeheng stops abruptly in front of us, holding up a hand for quiet. He’s spotted fresh tracks and believes a wild elephant could be in the area – confirmed by the faint sounds of the ground being trampled and low grunts about 300 metres away.
Our excitement at the find turns to something a little more serious when he warns us quietly that we have to walk quickly, a sober expression on his normally cheerful face. As we move forward, he swings the back of an axe hard against a tree, a gunshot-like sound ringing out through the thick forest.
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The elephants here haven’t forgotten the hunting days when bullets fired by humans would land amongst their herd. It makes them a dangerous animal for a human to encounter in these forests today, but Leeheng hopes their fear of the sound of guns will keep them well away from us.
Pausing frequently to take stock, he inspects tracks, listens to the low grunts in the distance. When we come across a strong earthy smell – a mound of very fresh droppings – and damage to ferns, tree trunks and plants reminiscent of a rogue ride-on mower, he gathers us around urgently. He thinks it’s a mother and child, meaning protective aggression is a real risk.
“They’re extremely close now, maybe 100 metres. If you see the elephant on the path, drop your bag immediately and run through the jungle. They can’t turn easily, so find the biggest tree you can and run behind it. Then move to the next and do the same. If you get lost, get to the river and head downstream. We’ll find you”.
Senses sharpened, we move stealthily along the paths to the nearby soundtrack of grunting and Bush-bashing(while hoping the fact we haven’t showered in a few days won’t give us completely away). With Leehengs help, we escape any face-to-face meetings with a territorial mother – but if our close encounter is the price to pay for CBET and the Wildlife Alliance achieving their goals of protecting the area’s remaining elephant population, we’ll happily take it.
Since its inception, the program has resulted in the reforesting of 733 hectares of degraded areas, cancelled 36 land concessions, and protected 720,000 hectares of tropical forests from illegal loggers and industrial encroachment. It’s a success story that leads the way in eco-tourism initiatives around the world.
But sadly, not everyone values their incredible successes; during our time in the mountains, there were whispers of devastating Chinese development threatening to destroy the region with mining and dams. There is a chance that the long-term future of CBET is again at the very real risk of crushing environmental destruction and financial uncertainty. They’re fighting hard though, with many protests and legal cases underway.
In the meantime, the elephants are returning, and the community of Chi Phat is on the rise.
Thinking of visiting Cambodia? Don’t miss Chi Phat for an incredible, unique experience in the Cardamom Mountains. Have you been before? Share your stories in the comments below!
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