WASHINGTON DC —
Editor’s note: Conservation International works in more than 30 countries around the world to help protect and preserve the environment. In Cambodia, the group is working with local communities to protect several endangered species, including a rare species of turtle and a “hairy-nosed otter.” The otter was once thought to be extinct, but it was discovered recently in Cambodia. VOA Khmer’s Poch Reasey recently interviewed Peter Stonier, CI’s director of visual storytelling, and John Martin, its director of production, at Voice of America’s studios in Washington. More of their work can be seen at conservation.org.
What is CI doing to help preserve rare turtles in Cambodia?
This rare turtle was thought to be extinct and was found in the Mekong, and we wondered, how do you conserve this because it’s so fragile? We didn’t know how many there are, and so Conservation International in Cambodia had the idea of well, right here near where the turtle is, there is a 500-year-old, famous pagoda, the Hundred Pillar Pagoda. And the idea was to develop a turtle tourism center in the pagoda. So the monks look after the turtles, tourists come to see the turtles, and this makes some money for the temple. So we have this kind of win-win.
How did the monks and the tourists react to this project?
They love it. In fact I saw on Trip Advisor that in Kratie province, one of the most popular tourist attractions is to go and see the turtles. And there is of course this wonderful Buddhist custom of demonstrating compassion by releasing an animal. And so at the tourism center, the monks there look after the hatched eggs and when they get to be the right age, it’s time for them to be released into the river, and tourists can come and take the hatchling and release it into the river. This is both a spiritual experience and a tourism experience at the same time.
What are the challenges that CI is facing in its work in Cambodia?
Well, everywhere in the world, you have a trajectory of economic development. What happens traditionally when economic planning has occurred is that nature is not part of the equation. So we see many examples, since the 1960s, where development occurs in an unsustainable way, and while in the short term this brought certain benefits, in the long term it undermines food security, undermines the quality of air, undermines agriculture—because the fish population was destroyed or because pollinators were destroyed or quality of soil was tampered with. So the big challenge we have around the world is inserting into development planning, taking nature into account. But this has been happening more and more. And now the UN, in its new Millennium Goals, is taking sustainability to another level, where they really are accounting for nature in setting development goals.
John, what are the challenges in your work to protect the hairy-nosed otter in Cambodia?
Well, the hairy-nosed otter is the most rare otter in the world. There are five species across Southeast Asia. This one in particular is very elusive, meaning that it’s very hard to see in the wild. So first of all, trying to get an assessment of the population requires a lot of monitoring with camera traps, because once people try to approach it, it hides, it tries to swim away. Also it has been impacted heavily by hunting and poaching because of its fur and also for its meat. So it’s a species that is currently endangered, according to the red list of threatened species by the [International Union for Conservation of Nature]. But we are doing a lot of work in the Tonle Sap to try to monitor the population and hopefully try to bring it back from this level of endangered to a better status in the wild.
As I understand, the one in captivity is the only one in captivity in Cambodia. Is there an estimate of how many there are in Cambodia?
Yes, in fact, I believe it’s the only one in captivity anywhere in the world, and it happens to be in Cambodia. This one male individual is named Pursat after Pursat province. We are trying to get numbers, but I believe the estimate is around 86 animals in the wild—across Southeast Asia, not just Cambodia.
CI has done a lot of educational workshops for the villagers around the Tonle Sap about the importance of the otters. How do the local authorities or the Cambodian authorities respond to your efforts?
It’s always a challenge. We really want to create awareness and educate people. And educating the government is essential, so that they understand the benefits that a species such as the hairy-nose otters can contribute to the community and to the lake as well. So in working with the local government we also work with local park rangers or police rangers to help enforce the laws around the lake, because hunting and poaching of the animals still takes place, unfortunately. But without proper law enforcement and without proper education by the government, we really can’t win the battle. So it’s really good for us to have this close relationship with the local government to help protect this very unique species for the region and for Cambodia.
Any last words you would like to share with our audience?
Yes, for me it’s really interesting. I went very early in the morning with Mao, who you see in the video. He is one of the villagers who is doing some of the monitoring and setting up camera traps. We would go very early in the morning and find certain trees, where we would see that the trees have been scratched by otters, so we knew that they lived in the area, and that’s where you want to set the camera traps—and sure enough, after coming back and retrieving the camera, we found the images and footage of the presence of the animal. So even though we didn’t get to see it personally in the wild, we knew that it was definitely living there. That was very rewarding, and it was great to see that the local people are very interested in this protection and they care a lot more than before.