PREAH VIHEAR PROVINCE, Cambodia — If poachers cannot be stopped from setting snares, then perhaps wildlife can be prevented from falling into their traps.
At Phnom Tnout Wildlife Sanctuary in northern Cambodia’s Preah Vihear province, a literally last-ditch attempt to save the wild animals of the forest is taking shape.
So far, the trench that is being dug is about 17km long, and about 5.5m wide and 2.5m deep on average. The aim is to have it completely encircle the 7,000ha core area of the sanctuary so that wild animals do not venture beyond it and into closer proximity to those hunting them.
There is another 15km left to go, estimated American Ben Davis, the founder of ecotourism lodge BeTreed Adventures who is leading the effort, with funding from other parties including the Cambodian government.
Elsewhere in the 40,000ha sanctuary, farmland for crops such as cassava and maize has replaced forests, and trails cut by humans through the vegetation have also brought villagers into closer contact with wildlife.
Farms that existed before the area was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 2017 have been allowed to remain. But the lack of a buffer zone between the two types of land use is hurting conservation efforts and increasing human-wildlife conflict, said Mr Davis.
The result: Wildlife populations are in fast decline, with animals trapped to reduce damage to crops, and to feed the swelling demand for their meat and for exotic pets from people in other cities or countries.
While hunting for subsistence is an age-old practice in South-east Asia, commercial pressures and cheaper snares that are easier to set are causing animals to be taken from forests faster than they can reproduce.
“Twenty years ago, everybody was out setting snares all through Preah Vihear, and catching stuff, you know, just tonnes and tonnes of wildlife every day,” said Mr Davis. “But now, outside the protected area, there’s almost nothing left.”
Mr Davis, who founded the eco-lodge in 2012, acknowledged that the ditch is no perfect solution since animals would be confined to the core area. Digging the trench would also involve the clearance of tracts of forests.
But he said he sees no other solutions to saving wildlife from the snaring scourge.
Over the last two decades that Mr Davis has lived in Preah Vihear, he has watched as the contraptions have become cheaper, simpler and far more common.
Despite daily patrols by rangers, Mr Davis said, it is impossible to weed out all the snares – relatively simple traps with a noose for snagging the neck, torso or leg of an animal.
Other studies have also shown that snare patrols only scrape the surface of the problem.
A snare detection study published in 2018 in the scientific journal Ecology and Evolution found that patrols detected less than half of set snares in a protected area in eastern Cambodia.
“We just keep picking them up and they keep setting more,” Mr Davis said.
The populations of wildlife species in the sanctuary have plummeted as a result, with banteng, an endangered rare cattle species, now on the brink of extinction, alongside other animals such as pangolins and slow lorises, said Mr Davis.
“A ditch is destructive, but it’s better to restrict wildlife and save them, than let them have their freedom to die,” he said.
“We can spend all day thinking about how different plans may be bad for animals in the long term. But we need to save them today, not tomorrow.”
In March, the Cambodian Ministry of Environment launched a “Zero-Snare” campaign in an effort to eliminate all types of snaring through raising awareness of the issue and working with the community. During the event launch, ministry spokesman Neth Peaktra said that more than 61,000 snares were removed from protected areas in 2021.
Mr Meas Nhem, deputy director of the department of environment in Preah Vihear, said this is the first time anything like the trench is being attempted.
“This will become our first line of defence to stop illegal logging and poaching,” he said. “The benefit is to prevent people from walking into the core area without any order, as well as (ensure) the safety of the wild animals.”
- This story was produced in collaboration with the Southeast Asia Globe, with support from The Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Journalism Fund.
- Additional reporting by Sophanna Lay. Mr Lay and Mr Delgado are from the Southeast Asia Globe.