Skip to main content

Indigenous people engage in the fight against wildlife crime in Cambodia's last, large intact forests

Current initiative


A photo of the recently described Northern buff-cheeked gibbon swinging from a branch in a tree.

The recently described species, the northern buff-cheeked gibbon (Nomascus annamensis). Credit: Poh Kao & NTFP

The Veun Sai-Siem Pang Conservation Area (VSSPCA) is located in North East Cambodia and is the largest remaining area of intact forest in Asia. This extremely biodiverse forest is under threat from poaching and illegal logging. However, NFTP and Poh Kao NGOs are working with communities to protect the forest and its wildlife by increasing formal protection of the forest, including recognition of indigenous peoples rights to the forests by creating Community Protected Areas, and the development of a network of communities that can begin to challenge illegal large-scale logging and poaching in the area.



Veun Sai-Siem Pang National Park (VSSPNP) is a large protected area complex that extends into Laos (Virachey National Park, Xe Pian National Park) and Vietnam (Chu Mom Ray National Park), and represents the largest area of intact forest in Asia.

As such, these forests provide the best chance for maintaining the iconic wildlife in South East Asia.

VSSPNP is extremely biodiverse - it is home to more than 250 species of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and birds - many of which are threatened - and includes some of the rarest species of animals on the planet. Species new to science, e.g. Walston’s tube-nose bat (Murina walstoni) and the iridescent lizard (Lygosoma veunsaiensi), are still being found here.

It is home to some of the last populations of giant ibis, sun bear, and clouded leopard, and includes what is thought to be the world's largest group of the endangered northern buff-cheeked gibbon (Nomascus annamensis). Of the six species of primates that are found here, 5 are on the Red List of Threatened Species IUCN (i.e. threatened). Seven large carnivore species are also found here.

VSSPNP is also essential to local people, providing food, fuelwood, medicinal plants and fresh water, and supporting the economy through ecotourism, agriculture and freshwater fishing. Indigenous spiritual beliefs are also intimately attached with the forest.

This area faces multiple threats including illegal logging, poaching, population pressure, and corruption.

The initiative targets ethnic minority communities in five villages (Kapin, Talae, Backae, I Tub and Kang Nuok) with a total population of approximately 4,000, whose livelihoods are sustained from gathering forest products and hunting to supply the Chinese market for meat and medicinal products.

The poaching and wildlife trade problem

Species affected Afzelia xylocarpa , Asian Elephant Elephas maximus , Binturong Arctictis binturong , Dipterocarpus alatus , Giant Ibis Thaumatibis gigantean , Hairy-nosed Otter Lutra sumatrana , Northern Buffed-cheeked Gibbon Nomascus annamensis , Rosewood Dalbergia spp. , Sarus Crane Antigone antigone , Siamese Crocodile Crocodylus siamensis , Bears , Big Cats , Primates , Small Cats , Ungulates

Products in trade

Live animals, skin, bush meat, Malva nuts, rosewood timber, orchids.

The forest is disappearing - being cleared of many species of luxury timber, such as rosewood (a staple of the Chinese hongmu classical furniture style) due to illegal logging, driven by demand primarily from China and Viet Nam.

Overview of the problem

The following animals and plants are affected by poaching and IWT in the area:

Cats - Leopard (Panthera pardus), Clouded Leopard (Neofelis nebulosa), Fishing Cat (Prionailurus viverrinus), Asiatic Golden Cat (Catopuma temminckii), Marbled Cat (Pardofelis marmorata), Leopard Cat (Prionailurus bengalensis).

Primates - Northern buff-cheeked gibbon (Nomascus annamensis), Red-shanked Douc Langur (Pygathrix nemaeus), Gray Leaf Monkey (Presbytis hosei), Northern Pig-tailed Macaque (Macaca leonina), Indochinese silvered langur (Trachypithecus germaini), Pygmy Slow Loris (Nycticebus pygmaeus).

Ungluates - Gaur (Bos gaurus), Eld's Deer (Rucervus eldii), Banteng (Bos javanicus), Chinese serow (Capricornis milneedwardsii), Large-antlered Muntjac (Muntiacus vuquangensis), Sambar Deer (Rusa unicolor).

Bears - Asiatic black bear (Ursus thibetanus), Sun Bear (Helarctos malayanus).

Other mammals - Binturong (Arctictis binturong), Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus), Hairy-nosed Otter (Lutra sumatrana); Sunda Pangolin (Manis javanica). 

Reptiles - Siamese Crocodile (Crocodylus siamensis).

Birds - Giant Ibis (Thaumatibis gigantean), Sarus Crane (Antigone antigone).

Timber species - Dipterocarpus alatus, Burmese Rosewood (Dalbergia bariensis), Siamese Rosewood (Dalbergia cochinchinensis), Afzelia xylocarpa.

Illegal logging is a lucrative industry driven by large national and international demand: there is a low risk of prosecution from enforcement agencies, and there is lack of political will to tackle this issue, which is further compounded by corruption. Thus, illegal logging represents a high revenue generating activity without fear of legal consequences.

Hunting appears to be largely conducted by people from local communities for either local consumption or wildlife trade (and to a lesser degree for medicinal purposes). For some families, food insecurity is a major driver for hunting - bushmeat provides food security in the face scarcity. However, a larger proportion of hunting is for the wildlife trade that is driven by external demand, which in turn provides food security and income generation for local people.

Historically the forest was inhabited by ethnic tribes (Kavet and Montagnard Lao) who were isolated - located in remote mountainous areas (far North East Cambodia) - until the late 1990s. Veun Sai-Siem Pang Forest was pristine/intact at this time, except for small-scale hunting and subsistence activities, such as hunting smaller species for personal consumption, practiced by these ethnic minorities.

Pacification of the country reactivated trafficking routes. Chinese and Vietnamese traders recruited migrants (recently based in ethnic villages) to become their intermediaries. These intermediaries actively encouraged young villagers to poach with the promise to purchase every plant and animal procured from the forest, but especially highly coveted and valuable species like tigers (now not seen for many years), leopards, bears, elephants, gibbons, pangolins, slow loris, cobra etc. This was against traditional norms and practices: traditional leaders were completely against this poaching, as it was breaking the traditional law (only specific wildlife were allowed to be hunted and only one at a time, or else the forest spirit will be offended). Lack of government will and inadequate law enforcement is doing little to control poaching and the larger issue of IWT.

Between 1997 to 2006, all tigers in the area were killed with landmines. Once per week, Chinese traders would visit their intermediaries in the ethnic villages to buy all dead or alive animals. They corrupted the village chief in one village, but the Kavet minority resisted the temptation despite being the most vulnerable and poorest people in Cambodia.

There are 3 operating modes:

1) One trader based in each of the 5 villages, buying all wildlife species dead or alive that villagers can poach using snares. Every week during the dry season a Chinese or Vietnamese trader comes from the Chinese village of Veun Sai to collect all animals.

2) Outsiders from nearby villages and from the provincial town are poaching with rifles, including soldiers armed with AK47s. Wildlife is trafficked into Viet Nam through the provincial town.

3) Authorities, such as police officers form hunting parties, armed with big nets, long spears, and guns. Wildlife is captured or killed: the bushmeat is sold at the provincial market or in Phnom Penh, and live animals are sold in Viet Nam.

The anti-IWT initiative

Poh Kao, a French NGO, aims to strengthen the capacity of people to control their own development, whilst respecting and conserving wildlife/biodiversity. Since it's inception in 2007, Poh Kao has been assisting the locally based NTFP NGO by providing and transferring the technical skills to allow the organization to effectively implement the initiative.

Overall Objective:

Improve the protection of Veun Sai Siem Pang Forests through the development of forest tenure security and the development of a network of communities in the VSSPNP and the surrounding landscape that will begin to challenge large-scale logging in the area. The ultimate goal is to obtain official gazetted protection of these forests including the establishment of Community Protected Areas/Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas (ICCAs are ecosystems containing significant biodiversity values, ecological services, and cultural values, voluntarily conserved by Indigenous peoples and local communities, through customary laws or other effective means (IUCN)).

These outcomes will engage Indigenous people in forest resources management, strengthen and extend the reach of the initiative to reduce illegal forestry by fostering collaboration between local communities (such as Prey Lang Community Network), and engage Indigenous people in on-ground protection activities (such as community patrols) to mitigate biodiversity loss (with a particular focus on gibbon protection).


• Recognition and official registration of a Community Protected Area by MoE.

• Establish and implement community patrols.

• Develop a forest crimes monitoring database.

• Establish Veun Sai Siem Pang Network (VSSPN).

• Establish collaboration between VSSPN and existing national networks.

The Forest Law of 2002 provides a legal basis for rural communities to use and help manage forests through community forestry. Protection of the forest, including the rights to manage and access natural resources, has been sought by local communities for many years, but local authorities have been reluctant to give these rights to Indigenous people. The initial aims were to have the area a designated a Community Forestry area, whilst simultaneously promoting ICCAs with recognition of Spirit Forest areas (mapped by Poh Kao in 2013), to provide the best chance of securing protection of these forests. 

During the first year, key regional stakeholders were mobilized through project-building workshops, and an MOU was signed between NTFP, the Ministry of Environment and local authorities. Two community-based organizations were established. Twenty-five rangers were recruited. In addition, a land-use map was produced, including three gibbon conservation areas, which will be used by the local authorities.

During the second year, four community organizations were established in the villages bordering the Park. These organizations meet every three months and take part in an exchange visit with the Prey Lang Network - a grassroots movement made up of members of the various communities that live in the forest. Prey Lang members work on a voluntary basis to protect the area and their livelihoods.

During this third year of support (2018), activities will focus on the continuation of conservation efforts in the area. The patrols will be maintained - funded by the development of responsible ecotourism.

The area has great tourism potential (nearly 4,000 eco-tourists visit the province annually), based on the opportunity to view a number of rare species.

An evaluation of ecotourism opportunities will be conducted with the local communities: a community organization will be set up to manage these activities; agreements and regulations will be put in place on a participatory basis; a strategy and business plan will be developed as well as partnerships with tour operators.

Finally, a center will be established in Banlung, offering tourists the chance to go trekking or accompany community patrols.

The strategy

Strengthening disincentives for illegal behaviour

Paid in money community scouts
Un-paid (voluntary) community scouts
Paid in-kind community scouts
Raising community awareness about wildlife crime penalties and sanctions
Further detail

25 Community wardens - 5/village - organize with the project staff to patrol 10-12 days/month (at least 2 members participate) and receive a payment of $6/day.

Other wardens include volunteers from villages, including women and teenagers, who are on a rotation system. Volunteers are trained in patrolling techniques twice/year (GPS, patrols books), have monthly meetings with staff and quarterly meetings with local authorities (for conflict resolution).

Community wardens are equipped with GPS, Icom, cameras, uniforms, boots, hammocks, raincoats, gas cookers.

Twice/year, rangers from Provincial government departments run workshops to raise awareness of the consequences of engaging in wildlife crime. These are aimed at communities and local authorities.

52 signboards have been installed by CBOs, wardens, DoE and FA staff in the 5 villages, at the entrance of each trail to the site and along key sections of trails in the gibbons’ areas.

Increasing incentives for wildlife stewardship

Further detail

In 2018, following the success of a pilot project in 2016 (that generated additional income for the community involved), the project started to work with the 5 villages to develop sustainable ecotourism enterprises.

Improving education and awareness

Further detail

Biodiversity Conservation

• 1,074 workshops in environmental education designed by Poh Kao were made, with an average of 22 schoolchildren per class in attendance.

• 795 villagers are regularly involved in events promoting the conservation of the forest and wildlife (including 2 documentary films on the big screen).

  - 27 movies were screened over 62 nights.

  - A Wildlife Alliance workshop and a visit to Phnom Tamao Rescue Center with 35 community members were organized.

Has the initiative made a difference?

- The forests were gazetted and are now a National Park, which should help to control/prevent large-scale exploitation.

- Official recognition of community protection for VSSPNP was gained with the creation of two Community Protected Areas (ICCA). 

- The initiative has successfully fostered a strong partnership between the Ministry of Environment and the Provincial Department of the Environment, and this cooperation has yielded positive results. Today, community wardens are recognized as key actors of conservation, and they are conducting joint patrols with government park rangers.

- Between 2016 - 2017 satellite imagery (produced as part of the initiative) showed an increase of 3281 ha of evergreen forest (and a decrease of the deciduous forest) (n.b evergreen forest subsequently decreased due to clearing for agriculture).

- Collaboration between local communities has contributed to reducing illegal timber harvesting and protecting the gibbon population in Veun Sai Siem Pang Forest (over a two year period).

   . Over a period of 12 months, patrol efforts by community wardens and park rangers have seen poaching rates decrease (information in SMART reports).

   . 208 people worked as community wardens (an increase of 139%) and undertook 63 patrols, totaling 325 days and covering 1498.74 km. During this time 20 snares were removed (vs 159 wildlife snares in 2016).

   . 54 gibbons were sighted by wardens, suggesting the population has increased.

- Community awareness of the importance of protecting wildlife increased.

   . 35 animals were rescued by local people, including children, and there has been reduced pressure on wildlife generally (information from Conservation International).

What works and why

Having a long-term relationship with communities (since 2007), and monthly visits by project staff to work with village CBOs and local authorities were key to the success of this initiative.

Despite the constant challenge to secure funding, engaging with communities who are dedicated to the protection of wildlife is yielding positive results. Job and income creation have been important for this, but they are also proud of their critical role in protecting the wildlife and the forest.

We are convinced that wildlife cannot be protected without communities, they are the eyes and ears of the forest. 

Land tenure rights are also very important as this 'ownership' reassures local people that the forest will not be given away to powerful people through economic land concessions.

Factors for success

Sufficient time investment in building relationships and trust between the initiative and local communities

Clearly defined tenure or resource use rights

Clear and tangible benefits to local communities from wildlife (These may be financial and/or non-financial)

Factors that limited or hindered success

Lack of long-term donor support that is flexible, adaptive and/or based on realistic time goals

Lack of supportive, multi-stakeholder partnerships with a shared vision

Further detail

Securing long-term funding is a constant challenge: we don't know how we will continue beyond the end of the project in March 2019: fundraising is increasingly competitive and donors are not funding for the long-term.

Although another international NGO is working in the same area, and towards the same goals, they have been unwilling to establish a positive relationship with us and appear disrespectful of us (a local NGO) and the local communities.

Organisers, donors and partners

Critical Ecosystem Partnership Funds (CEPF) and Fondation Ensemble (France)

For further information contact Veronique Audibert Pestel (