The first ever photographs of a wild leopard with young in Cambodia show that a pioneering project is helping to conserve wildlife and support local livelihoods there. The photographs were taken by the animals themselves when they triggered camera traps that had been set up by wildlife biologists working with local community rangers.
“They are very secretive creatures and incredibly difficult to see, even with the best guides,” says Nick Cox of WWF's Greater Mekong office.“But in the Srepok Wilderness Area of the Mondulkiri protected forest in north-eastern Cambodia, our rangers have had recent encounters with leopards that would make big cat biologists green with envy.”
The Srepok Wilderness Area Project (SWAP) aims to ensure that local people benefit from conservation in a part of Cambodia where forests are relatively intact, but threatened by illegal logging, conversion for agriculture and the unsustainable trade in wildlife products.
WWF is working with the Cambodian government and the International Institute for Environment and Development on the project, which is part funded by the Darwin Initiative.
The project partners are aware that conservation in a country as poor as Cambodia will only succeed if local people continue to benefit economically from the Mekong River and its surrounding forests. The area’s wildlife has been struggling as a consequence of decades of war, colonial mismanagement of wildlife and civil strife.
The Srepok wilderness area was largely unprotected until WWF began working there in 2002. The rangers working in the forest have provided anecdotal evidence of their belief that the forest ecosystem is recovering, but nothing firm until now. Leopards will only reproduce if the conditions are right and these photographs are an initial positive indicator of a healty ecosystem.
Under the Darwin Initiative funded project, Julia Chase-Grey is studying how local hunting and farming practices affect populations of the leopard and its prey species, such as the dog-like dhole. “Very little information exists on the ecology or conservation of the leopard in Cambodia,” says Chase-Grey, a PhD student at Durham University, United Kingdom.
Chase-Grey spent two months working with rangers from local communities, whose knowledge of the area and its wildlife meant they could advise her where to set up the camera traps. The SWAP has trained the rangers in an effort to provide sustainable alternatives to hunting.
James MacGregor of the International Institute for Environment and Development says that the SWAP’s innovative approach provides a practical lesson in best practice conservation management in genuine collaboration with local people. “This project highlights the importance of involving local people in conservation and ensuring that they have a stake in protecting wildlife,” says MacGregor. “The Srepok Wilderness Area Project is helping to restore the natural wildlife populations and provide local people with pathways out of poverty.”
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