I spent little time in my tent, however, and was soon venturing onto the river and into the steamy rainforest as often as possible. The default activity was to visit Preak Tachan Ranger Station, which lay several kilometres upriver. To get there, we took our kayaks out onto the languid water. The route was an adventurous one, as we explored choked tributaries never paddled before. One unnamed channel constricted to just several metres wide, and we were in and out of our kayaks, hauling them over rocks and limboing under spiky fallen logs, as we made our way slowly upriver, while resident blue butterflies – swarms of them – fed on our gathering perspiration.
The slow-drifting kayak to Preak Tachan Station was effortless and we soon arrived at the ranger’s blue hut, staffed by a team of six on duty and led by head ranger Chum Sokheng. Dressed in his camouflage fatigues, Sokheng explained how the battle was being won to protect JW’s wildlife. He showed me netting used to snare pangolins as well as confiscated homemade wooden rifles – primitive, almost like flintlocks – spiteful wire snares and seized chainsaws. Covering 180 sq km, his team has been remarkably successful in tackling the persistent human menace.
“In the first year we confiscated over 2,000 snares, and by 2017 it was 300,” said Sokheng.” There’s no logging now and we rarely see poachers,” he added, as if lamenting the thrill of the pursuit. “If poachers have killed larger animals, we take them straight to jail.”
Sokheng had seen elephants here just twice. The NGO Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF), who part-fund the rangers, estimate that around 400 to 600 elephants remain across Cambodia, with just 200 in the Cardamoms. A wildlife corridor has been negotiated with the Thai rubber plantation to try to mitigate damage to elephant migration routes. I wondered how he felt about overseas companies being handed his country’s forests: “We don’t like it, but what can we do when the government gives it away?”
The rangers maintain forest trails that were once used by poachers and loggers but are now signposted for guests. One trail wound back to camp through a squeeze of vine-snagged trees and spiky palms buckling under bromeliads and throttled by climbing figs. Golden orb spiders – huge ones, like small plates in diameter – spinned saffron-coloured webs and the birdcall was redolently sweet from unseen songsters amid the denseness.
“You won’t see a lot of wildlife, as much of it was slaughtered during the war, but it’s out there,” reminded Allan.
His assertion was backed by images from camera traps set up in the Cardamoms. Rare treasures have been recorded here, from near-mystical clouded leopards to endemic wild dogs that resemble foxes and are known as dhole. I was even shown claw marks on a tree trunk scratched by an Asiatic black bear.
After the wildlife releases, my next two days were spent kayaking and looking for suitable sites to build bird hides. Allan and I departed camp one morning at 4.30am to track elusive green peafowls, driven expertly up the river in the pitch dark by Mr Hit. The camp has a strong commitment to local employment.
“Mr Hit is one of the poorest members of the local community, and when I employed him, his face lit up,” remembered Allan.
The peafowls remained elusive but we encountered a large serpent eagle. “I once saw one try to take off with a two-metre snake in its talons, but it could scarcely get off the ground,” Allan continued.
On another jungle hike along the river’s opposite bank, we got close to some pileated gibbons uttering unnaturally high bubbling whoops that sounded like they were calling underwater. Mind you, I wasn’t nearly so enthusiastic about the leeches and decided at the end of the sweltering trail to swim – fully clothed – across the refreshing river and back to camp in an attempt to drown them. Leeches, I discovered to my dismay, have a tenacious capacity for holding their breath.
With no compulsion to seek larger, showier mammals, I found intense satisfaction in the minutiae of this sparkling forest. We explored a trail around the camp by torchlight one night, to a throaty cacophony of barking sambar deer. Beetles glinted like metallic broaches, bracket fungus bore patterns like the rings of Saturn, a curious planthopper nymph resembled a magnified snowflake and pinprick eyes left me wondering what exactly was watching us.
I’ve stayed in many eco-camps and lodges over the years and sometimes felt that the wilderness they inhabit would have been better off had they not been built. Yet this small camp on the river encapsulated hope; a chance that the future for Cambodia’s wildlife and forests might be brighter than its past. For travellers going from Thailand to Sihanoukville, it is an essential stopover, and as we sped back to Trapeang Rung by riverboat, Allan’s words rang in my ears: “We simply have to succeed here.” For all our sakes, I hope they do.
Cambodia's Big Five
Cambodia has high levels of biodiversity, particularly in its forest mammals. However, it has also lost key species over recent decades, including the Indochinese tiger, which was last seen in 2007, and the Cambodian wild ox, known as kouprey, last sighted in 1988. But the Cardamom Mountains is one of the last refuges for its rare Big Five…
1: Sun bear
These tree-climbers are the world’s smallest ursine. With their trademark black fur and distinctive markings, making it look as though they sport a gold necklace.
The dhole is a small wild dog with vulpine features that weighs less than 20kg. The WWF classifies them as rare in Cambodia, though their biggest threat is not from poachers but domestic dogs.
3: Clouded leopard
This elusive cat is relatively small and nocturnal. The IUCN considers the species to be vulnerable but it has been caught on camera traps in the Cardamom Mountains.
Around 400 to 600 Asian elephants remain across Cambodia, but they are now classed as an endangered species here. Typically, they are smaller than their African counterparts but still weigh in at a pretty hefty 5,000kg. Sightings are rare.
5: Sunda pangolin
Traffickers are hammering this small, scaly anteater into extinction, driven by the profits to be made from Chinese medicine. It’s an ongoing tragedy that it is now considered rare in Cambodia.
The author stayed at Cardamom Tented Camp (+855 966 410783), which offers three-day packages and four-day trips including round-trip transfers, all meals and activities. The camp is a collaborative project between the Wildlife Alliance, who have provided ranger patrols for the past five years in the JW Concession; YAANA Ventures, who designed it and are responsible for its operations; the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF), who part-fund the rangers; and a Thai-based hotelier, the Minor Group.
Tours of Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre are offered by the Wildlife Alliance. They also run a ‘Be a ranger for a day’ programme to see life on patrol; prices given on request.
Vacation Boutique Hotel (Phnom Penh) epitomises good value, although it’s hardly boutique. Still, the large, modern rooms are located close to the riverfront.