Around the temples of Angkor, seven baby gibbons play in the jungle where this endangered species is benefiting from a reintroduction program, but despite poaching and deforestation, their future remains uncertain.
“The project is going very well”rejoiced with AFP Nick Marx, one of the Wildlife Alliance leaders, who observed the black or white fur monkeys eating the bananas that members of the NGO tend to them.
Since 2013, this American structure has been working with the public agency that manages the Angkor Wat (Apsara) Archaeological Park and the Cambodian Forestry Office to repopulate the natural site around the famous remains classified as World Heritage by Unesco.
Smooth-haired otter, barking deer, peacock… Thanks to the program, more than 40 endangered animals have found refuge in the 6,500 hectare jungle, long ravaged by hunters and looters.
“We released four pairs of hood gibbons in the Angkor forest and they bred. Seven babies were born here”says Nick Marx.
“This is a great win for our project”welcomes Chou Radina, Aspara’s deputy director in charge of forest management.
Around Angkor is the setting “safest”according to Mr Marx, to restore vulnerable fauna, especially small primates, as the site has enjoyed special protection status since its registration with Unesco in 1992.
Returned animals have been rescued from poachers, or born in captivity to parents rescued from the wildlife trade.
Cambodia is no exception to this illegal trade, “always persistent” in Southeast Asia, according to the 2020 report of TRAFFIC, a specialized global monitoring network.
In the little kingdom, the sanctions “too light” does not deter hunters, according to this NGO that also denounces Cambodia as a transit zone between Africa and China or Vietnam.
“Falls and traditional hunting” also threatens rare wild species, admits a spokesman for the Cambodian Ministry of the Environment, which ensures that 61,000 traps are removed from forests every year.
In addition to poaching, deforestation makes conservation even more difficult, according to Nick Marx, whose NGO estimates it saves 2,000 animals a year.
The sanctuary Wildlife Alliance dedicates to them in Phnom Tamao, an hour’s drive from the capital Phnom Penh, is itself threatened by an urban development project.
Between 2001 and 2021, according to Global Forest Watch (GFW), Cambodia lost 30% of its forest area, at a much higher rate than its Thai neighbors (12%), Vietnamese (20%) or Laotian (21%).
“As wildlife is driven from forests and forests lose their inhabitants, reintroducing or releasing species will become an increasingly important sign of conservation”assures Mr Marx.
The participants in the program hope that the gibbons will interbreed to continue their repopulation and that they will eventually become an attraction like the statues of Buddha at Angkor: “apart from visiting temples, tourists get a chance to see nature”launches Chou Radina.