Forest for the Trees: Minister’s Letter Skips Over Phnom Tamao Forest Loss

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A sambar deer captured on a camera trap in Phnom Tamao’s forested area. (Nick Marx Wildlife Alliance)

Agriculture Minister Veng Sakhon assured animal welfare NGO Wildlife Alliance that an animal rescue center at Phnom Tamao will remain untouched, but did not address the potential destruction of hundreds of hectares of protected forest around it through the planned privatization of land.

Government documents, maps and meetings over the last few weeks have revealed the government’s plans to hand over large tracts of forest land at Phnom Tamao in Takeo province. Potential land cutouts would split the forest in two and potentially impact wildlife in the forest.

Sakhon sent the Council of Ministers a letter on April 28, seen by VOD on Thursday, reassuring officials that the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center would be untouched by plans to transfer land to private hands.

In the letter, Sakhon also references a letter sent by Suwanna Gauntlett, head of Wildlife Alliance, which jointly runs the rescue center with the government, where she asks to stop the transfer of land and requests a meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen. Gauntlett, according to the letter, warned of the threat to wildlife if the forest was cleared.

The Sakhon letter does not address the potential downsides to transferring forest land and only focuses on reassuring the Council of  Ministers that the wildlife rescue center would be untouched because of almost 8,400 meters of fence built around the 400-hectare rescue center.

Minister Sakhon could not be reached for comment on Thursday and did not respond to messages on Telegram.

A Council of Ministers document previously seen by VOD listed two parcels of state land, around 300 and 500 hectares, approved for privatization, while a map distributed at a stakeholder meeting two weeks ago says the TP Moral Group, linked to notorious tycoon Khun Sea, requested two plots in the forested area — around 520 and 160 hectares.

Wildlife Alliance director Nick Marx said giving away the land would definitely impact wildlife in the forested areas of Phnom Tamao and he could not support the privatization.

“I do not support this and want to get rid of the idea of ​​clearing the forest around Phnom Tamao because we want to leave the forest for the people and tourists to see wildlife, see the forest,” he said.

Phal Karuna, a student and resident of Kandal Stung district, said she had visited the rescue center two times and said the focus should be on preserving the forest because natural habitats could not be replaced.

“I think the forest is more important than the zoo because any zoo can do the same thing as a safari, but with the forest where will the animals live? It is not easy,” she said.

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