Grey-haired Soth Sophal prepared one recent day to lead a group of six villagers through the forest to a waterfall.
He would guide them in a way responsible to the environment, showing off the natural splendor of the area, near his home village of Prey Praseth, in Preah Sihanouk province’s Kampong Seila district.
The 54-year-old had been a guide since 2007, but he has not always been so kind to the forest. At one time, he was a hunter and a logger in the Cardamom Mountains, Cambodia’s ecological gem, where elephants, tigers and crocodiles still live—although in dwindling numbers.
“At that time, nothing in the forest belonged to anyone,” he told VOA Khmer on a recent trip in March. “We could do whatever we wanted with it: hunting, trapping animals, logging for valuable timber.”
Soth Sophal was one of many who exploited the mountains in the 1980s and 1990s, when the area of more than 2 million hectares suffered chaotic deforestation a decline in wildlife.
People on the edge of the forest depended on the jungles for survival. In the early 1990s, Soth Sophal bought a rifle from a solider, for hunting, and learned to lay animal traps from a friend.
“I went to the forest with him and helped him carry home hunted animals like wild pigs and deer,” Soth Sophal said. “Then I could lay my own traps, and the animals would be caught.”
For about 13 years from 1994, Soth Sophal would catch an average two animals per night, earning him up to $400 a month, above the average for Cambodia’s impoverished villagers.
“I had no choice but to hunt for a living then, because I had no capital to do any business,” said Soth Sophal, the father of five children. “I just borrowed some money from neighbors to buy stuff for a trap and pay them back after I sold off the animals I caught in the forests.”
Eventually, he had a change of heart. He began to fear arrest from the authorities, as they began cracking down on the wildlife trade and illegal logging. He was afraid he had sinned by killing the animals. An international conservation group, Flora and Fauna International, was teaching villagers to grow crops, to farm instead of hunt.
Soth Sophal decided to use his skills as a woodsman to guide tourists. He now walks them through the Thmor Roung ecotourism site in Preah Sihanouk.
“I also help protect the wild animals by informing the conservation group and local authorities when I learn about any hunter coming into my community,” he said.
His family earns a living selling meals and snacks to curious tourists, both foreign and local. And while some villagers continue to hunt and log in the forest, Soth Sophal says he rests easy, no longer afraid of arrest, or of sinning, knowing he is doing what he can to ensure the forest is their for the next generation.