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On Minefields of Khmer Rouge, Wilderness Is Preserved
ANDREW C. REVKIN . NY Times . 18 jun 2002

A bountiful array of wildlife, including the threatened pileated gibbon and the sun bear, would be protected under plans for a preserve in the cascade-laced central Cardamom Mountains of Cambodia.

The skin of a clouded leopard, a threatened species, is for sale at a wildlife shop in Phnom Penh.

The Cambodian mountains that were the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge may be turned into a preserve, forming a vital link in a chain of protected areas that would make up the largest green corridor in mainland Southeast Asia.

The central Cardamom Mountains, named for the sweet spice that grows along their slopes, had been avoided by timber companies and settlers because of the rebels who controlled the region through the 1990's, laying minefields and kidnapping or killing interlopers.

But with the Khmer Rouge largely subdued, logging roads have begun advancing into the cascade-laced highlands, which lie along the country's western flank, and thousands of refugees seeking patches of land have been following them.

Pressure to prevent logging in the Cardamoms has been coming from international aid agencies and development banks, which provide Cambodia with about $500 million in assistance each year.

In 1993, a decree by King Norodom Sihanouk gave some protection to the western and eastern ends of the range, but the central mountains have remained open to development. Now the Cambodian prime minister, Hun Sen, and his council of ministers are considering a decree of protection for the one-million-acre region.

But the ministers are under pressure not just from the international lenders that want to preserve the land but also from Asian timber companies, some of which already hold logging concessions in the mountain range.

If the preserve is created, the adjacent protected areas would form a 2.44-million-acre path for wildlife in a part of Asia where rain forests have largely been diced into ever-shrinking fragments.

The biological bounty in the Cardamoms became evident in 2000, after Flora and Fauna International, a private conservation group in London, conducted surveys that turned up dozens of threatened plants and animals, including Siamese crocodiles, tigers and a rare gibbon species.

But the mountains are important to more than wildlife. The steep slopes of the Cardamoms drain into the Tonlé Sap, a lake and river system that supplies perhaps half the annual fish catch in Cambodia, said David Mead, Conservation International's project manager for Cambodia. The private group, based in Washington, partly paid for the survey in 2000 and Mr. Mead is running a program conducting patrols against poaching and illegal logging.

Significant clearing of the slopes, combined with the region's enormous rainfall, would result in severe erosion, Mr. Mead said. "If you silt that lake up, you'll have a real problem on your hands," he said. "Just the watershed factor alone should be enough to say that logging shouldn't occur there."

In fact, all of the protected areas — those created in 1993 and the new one — exist mainly on paper. The cash-poor country is rife with illegal cutting of valuable hardwood trees and poaching of wildlife.

Conservation International started helping to organize and equip forest patrols in 2001, and will continue providing $500,000 a year for the effort, group officials said.

"You can't just create these areas and say thanks and take off," said Dr. Russell A. Mittermeier, a biologist and president of Conservation International. "If you're not in there with patrols, in five years it'll be sucked dry of wildlife and chopped in pieces like the rest of Indochina."