Fresh satellite imagery shows rapid destruction of the Phnom Tamao forest this week, an estimated 130 hectares razed between Friday and Wednesday.
The European Space Agency’s Sentinel 2 satellite captured the forest virtually untouched on July 29. By the time it next passed on its orbit on August 3, the northeast corner of the forest was extensively destroyed.
An estimate based on the imagery suggests around 130 hectares of the forest was cleared over the five days. A local resident said on Thursday that she had seen an endangered deer flee from the forest, and wild pigs that used to drink water nearby every night had disappeared. A conservationist said military and military police had blocked him from observing the clearing activity.
Large tracts of the 2,000-plus hectare Phnom Tamao forest, which houses a zoo and wildlife rescue center in its southwest corner, has been privatized for connected tycoons this year. Project plans have not been disclosed, but the tycoons who received the land include gated-housing and satellite-city developers Leng Navatra and Khun Sea.
Cheam Sokhom, a beverage seller in the area, said she had seen increasing activity of trucks and workers and heard rising noise from the clearing through the week. “They said in two days it will reach here,” Sokhom said. “No one has told me to leave. But if they are clearing like this, how could I stay here?”
She said that she used to see the footprints of wild pigs every morning after they came to drink water nearby overnight. But those footprints had disappeared this week, she said.
She had also seen a sambar deer jump out of the forest into a nearby plantation, and heard gunshots at night, Sokhom said.
Sot Phally, chief monk of a pagoda inside the forest, said the clearing had reached his pagoda and he had seen wild animals fleeing. He also saw loggers taking out dead monitor lizards from the forest, Phally said.
“They destroyed everything around the pagoda. I’m worried. But what should we do if they are clearing like this?”
Wildlife Alliance director Nick Marx said he and his team weren’t being allowed to get close to the clearing activity as they were blocked by soldiers and military police officers, and he believed that approaching the area would be dangerous for him.
“I think that conservation organizations should think carefully whether it is wise and honest to continue to support conservation in a country with a government that has no interest. There are many countries that understand about climate change and value Natural Resources. Perhaps better we spend our time, our money and our energy there,” Marx said. “This is a betrayal by Forestry Administration.”
Agriculture Minister Veng Sakhon told VOD over the weekend that around 1,500 hectares of the forest has been privatized, much of it to Navatra, who also runs a music-video production company. His companies have not responded to requests for comment.