Hope and Horror in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park

 
 

Virachey National Park’s location is both a blessing and a curse. Carved out of a chunk of mountains that demarcates the Cambodian, Lao, and Vietnamese borders and terminating in a wisp of terrain known as the “Dragon’s Tail,” the wildlife of this beleaguered and beautiful park has managed to cling to existence thanks almost exclusively to its rugged terrain. Many Cambodian protected areas lay on relatively flat land that makes it all too easy for poachers and loggers to get around in, but that ease of navigation ends at Virachey, which is actually the southern flank of a westward-stretching arm of the Annamite Cordillera. On the Vietnamese and Lao sides of the borders with Virachey the mountains and jungles spread onward, echoing the morning cry of gibbons and the call of the hornbills that always impress visitors to Virachey. This intriguing topography is also a problem because Lao and Vietnamese poachers find it all too easy to sneak across the wild border areas to set snares and shoot rare species like douc langurs out of the trees.

Indeed, Vietnamese and Lao poaching inside Virachey appears to be on the increase, as Habitat ID’s camera traps are now showing. While locals also poach, they do not, according to our camera trap records, seem to be as well-armed, determined, and well-organized as the Vietnamese, who have long made illegal border crossings into Cambodia via Laos and Vietnam to hunt out the last of the tigers and elephants. Local people are allowed to enter the park to collect Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs) and to fish and even hunt non-threatened species such as wild pig and barking deer. In fact, the locals caught on our film appear positively benevolent compared to the eerily determined Vietnamese poachers stalking the remote Virachey mountains in the dark of night.

Virachey National Park rangers have begun to do more patrols in recent years, especially in 2016. In addition, Cambodia’s Ministry of Environment has recently decided to add 1 million hectares of protected areas to the kingdom’s forests, and Virachey will be a beneficiary of this. Still, more help is needed. Anyone enjoying the pictures in this photo essay should consider contacting Virachey National Park to see how they can help out.

Some may question the wisdom of publishing camera trap photos. I have pondered this myself. However, it is clear that poachers are already very active in the park; they don’t need Internet photos to tell them where to go. Furthermore, the area that is now Virachey National Park has been getting absolutely hammered by poaching and logging since the 1980s—that’s well over 30 years of constant hunting. Are we really telling the poachers something they don’t know? After all, they did an excellent job of hunting out the charismatic megafauna well before camera traps ever showed up on the scene. So, let this photo essay serve as an S.O.S. Is there anybody out there who is interested in protecting the wildlife of the last great forest of Indochina?

Greg McCann is the Field Coordinator for Habitat ID, an NGO that specializes in camera-trapping in under-prioritized national parks in Southeast Asia.

Hope and Horror in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park
A group of armed Vietnamese poachers march along the Cambodia-Lao border in Virachey National Park. This area is difficult to access and the poachers operate with impunity here.
Image Credit: Greg McCann / Habitat ID
Hope and Horror in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park
an Asian Black Bear and cub frolic in the secluded solitude of a hidden corner of Virachey where poachers have never triggered our cameras. Asian Black Bears are becoming increasingly rare in Indochina.
Image Credit: Greg McCann / Habitat ID
Hope and Horror in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park
A lone poacher carrying an AK47 with spotlight walks a path frequented by many animals in a remote location in Virachey. Wildlife in this park has suffered from poaching for decades, and it appears that poachers want whatever is left.
Image Credit: Greg McCann / Habitat ID
Hope and Horror in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park
An elusive Binturong with two cubs ambles by a camera trap near the Lao border. This species is not often recorded in Cambodia, but it can still be found in Virachey.
Image Credit: Greg McCann / Habitat ID
Hope and Horror in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park
A poacher stares into our camera trap before continuing on his evening hunt. Criminals such as this are doing irreparable damage to wildlife populations.
Image Credit: Greg McCann / Habitat ID
Hope and Horror in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park
A Sun Bear missing half of its front right leg, likely lost to a poacher’s snare.
Image Credit: Greg McCann / Habitat ID
Hope and Horror in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park
Kavet minority village kids discover our camera trap while out collecting wild fruits near the Lao border.
Image Credit: Greg McCann/ Habitat ID
Hope and Horror in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park
The Clouded Leopard is now probably the top predator of the ecosystem. This species is increasingly targeted by poachers.
Image Credit: Greg McCann / Habitat ID
Hope and Horror in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park
More Kavet highlanders check out our camera trap. A few months later this camera disappeared under mysterious circumstances.
Image Credit: Greg McCann/ Habitat ID
Hope and Horror in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park
A massive Gaur, the world’s largest wild bovine, takes a stroll in the crepuscular mountain light.
Image Credit: Greg McCann/ Habitat ID
Hope and Horror in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park
Poachers will not stop until the last animals have been hunted out.
Image Credit: Greg McCann/ Habitat ID
Hope and Horror in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park
A Stump-tailed Macaque wants a “selfie” in one of our camera traps.
Image Credit: Greg McCann / Habitat ID
Hope and Horror in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park
There are now many, many people walking around in the forest. Just what are they doing? Collecting NTFPs? Poaching? Logging? Maybe all three?
Image Credit: Greg McCann / Habitat ID
Hope and Horror in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park
A large Sambar stag rises from a mud wallow in the picturesque Phnom Veal Thom Grasslands in the center of Virachey. This area is a popular destination for ecotourists who do a 7-day round trip trek to enjoy the panoramas. The Phnom Veal Thom Grasslands trek is Cambodia’s answer to Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit trek.
Image Credit: Greg McCann / Habitat ID
Hope and Horror in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park
A poacher inspects an open basaltic clearing favored by many types of wildlife.
Image Credit: Greg McCann / Habitat ID
Hope and Horror in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park
An endangered Dhole visits a seasonal pool in the Phnom Veal Thom Grasslands. Poachers often bring dogs into the forest with them to assist with hunting pangolins and porcupines, and village dogs leave behind feces which can spread deadly germs to Dholes.
Image Credit: Greg McCann/ Habitat ID
Hope and Horror in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park
This hardcore poacher has been photographed on two separate cameras one month apart. He lives in the forest days away from the nearest village, determined to find his quarry, whatever that may be. Poachers are serious criminals and should be arrested and prosecuted to the fullest extent by law.
Image Credit: Greg McCann / Habitat ID
Hope and Horror in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park
A Wreathed Hornbill comes down to rest near the headwaters of a sacred stream near the Lao border. There are still many hornbills to be found in Virachey, and these majestic birds are a key indicator of a healthy ecosystem.
Image Credit: Greg McCann / Habitat ID
Hope and Horror in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park
Villagers pause on their fruit-gathering expedition to check out a camera trap. Collecting NFTPs such as rattan and vine fruits can be a way for local people to supplement their incomes.
Image Credit: Greg McCann / Habitat ID
Hope and Horror in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park
The first-ever photographs of Black-hooded Laughingthrush in Cambodia. The species was thought to be endemic to Vietnam and Laos only, but our camera trap images show that their range extends into Cambodia. What other surprises await researchers in this park? Locals report that a creature called the Tek-Tek, a tropical version of the Himalayan Yeti, haunts the mountains that mark the Cambodia-Laos border.
Image Credit: Greg McCann / Habitat ID
Hope and Horror in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park
More poachers searching along a stream for signs of wildlife. They will stop at nothing to catch and kill whatever remains of Cambodia’s natural heritage.
Image Credit: Greg McCann / Habitat ID
Hope and Horror in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park
Hog Badger populations are in steep decline throughout Southeast Asia. Virachey is one of the last strongholds for this peculiarly wonderful species.
Image Credit: Greg McCann / Habitat ID
Hope and Horror in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park
A Marbled Cat backs up into a defensive position as something sinister catches its attention.
Image Credit: Greg McCann / Habitat ID
Hope and Horror in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park
There is no rest for the wicked in Virachey National Park. A ghostly poacher peers into the blackness of the jungle night. What is he looking for? Slow Loris? Small-toothed Palm Civet? Some other nocturnal species?
Image Credit: Greg McCann / Habitat ID
Hope and Horror in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park
A critically endangered Douc Langur comes down from the forest canopy to peer into a camera trap. It is thought that the Doucs of Virachey are a hybrid between the Red-shanked and the Gray-shanked sub-species. More research on Douc Langurs in Virachey is urgently needed.
Image Credit: Greg McCann / Habitat ID
Hope and Horror in Cambodia’s Virachey National Park
Virachey National Park comprises a stunning landscape of natural savannas and rugged jungled hills which, in their own way, rival the Himalayas.
Image Credit: Greg McCann / Habitat ID
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