Volume 30, Issue 2, Summer 2012

Building a New Generation of Conservationists

Cambodia's recent history left unique challenges

By Neil Furey

Cambodia, with some of the most pristine forests and wetlands remaining in Southeast Asia, supports an exceptional biodiversity. Yet little is known of these richly varied life forms, and that's especially true for bats. For example, the scientific literature lists 60 bat species for the nation –roughly half the totals for neighboring Thailand and Vietnam and no doubt far short of the true number of Cambodian species.

This dearth of information stems from three decades of conflict that made fieldwork impossible, and the brutal legacy of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s, when 80 percent of educators died or left the country and more than half of all written materials were destroyed. The loss of a generation of Cambodian researchers and educators, as well as the infrastructure that supported them, was devastating.

For today's conservation efforts to succeed, that lost generation must be replaced. Dedicated individuals must be recruited and trained. Dependable biodiversity data must be developed.

A critical step was taken in 2005. The nonprofit organization Fauna & Flora International, based in the United Kingdom, began working with the Royal University of Phnom Penh to rebuild Cambodia's capacity to train a new generation of conservation leaders. This collaboration produced an unprecedented two-year Masters of Science in Biodiversity Conservation program at the Royal University. Courses were initially taught by university lecturers and conservation professionals from around the world. These international experts are gradually being replaced as qualified Cambodian instructors become available.

More than 100 Cambodians have received advanced training from this program, which I manage. Since many students are already working in environmental or education jobs, they are putting their training to immediate use.

Many students choose to do their dissertations on bats. Recent projects include studies of the impact of forest disturbance on bats, the utility of ultrasound detectors for identification of Cambodian species and the status of flying foxes in urban areas, plus systematic reviews of the horseshoe (Rhinolophidae) and leaf-nosed (Hipposideridae) bat families.

Bats have formed a special part of our program since its onset. Field surveys in the last six years, for instance, have yielded a wealth of new knowledge, including the discovery of four bat species that are new to science and 15 others that are new to Cambodia. Much of this work was made possible through collaborations with the United Kingdom's Harrison Institute and the Hungarian Natural History Museum. The potential for even more discoveries is strong.

A major goal of our work is to build local capacity to address the critical need for reliable ecological data. We established museum collections of dried plants and taxidermied animal specimens at the university in 2008 and began developing a team to undertake original lines of research. For animals, this includes reptiles, amphibians, birds, butterflies, aquatic invertebrates and bats.

The zoological collection alone now includes almost 4000 specimens and is beginning to reverse historical patterns in which specimens collected in Cambodia were lodged in Western collections that few Cambodian scholars can readily visit. Some overseas museums have begun returning "voucher specimens" previously collected in the region, including some from the colonial era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These collections have already proved their value for teaching activities and the preparation of sorely needed species-identification guides in the Cambodian language.

But much remains to be done to conserve the bats of Cambodia. Habitat destruction has dramatically increased in recent years and the hunting of bats for food is commonplace in many areas. Awareness of the economic and ecological importance of bats also appears low throughout the country.

Recent research from Vietnam has shown that forested limestone karst (a landscape characterized by caves and sinkholes) is exceptionally important for bats, especially cave-dwelling species. Very large outcrops occur in the western and southwestern provinces of Battambang and Kampot, where more than 100 caves have been explored by speleologists. But very few have been surveyed for bats, and those were mostly one-time visits more than a decade ago.

Cave-dwelling bats are highly susceptible to disturbance, ­especially during critical reproductive periods such as late pregnancy, lactation and weaning. Determining exactly when and where these periods occur is vitally important for conservation – especially since these karst ecosystems are experiencing increasing habitat loss and pressure from tourism and mining industries. Few, if any, are protected for their biodiversity. We are currently working with BCI on plans for a cave-bat surveying program.

On the positive side, however, is the traditional practice of "farming bats" for their guano, which seems confined so far to Cambodia and a neighboring area of southern Vietnam. Rural farmers hoist dome-shaped "bat nests" made from palm leaves high up on trees and collect the nutrient-rich guano the bats leave behind for use on their crops or for sale locally. Once dried, the guano fetches about 2,000 riel (roughly half a dollar) per kilogram (2.2 pounds). With some farmers harvesting as many as twenty of these artificial roosts, this can add substantially to yearly incomes.

And that, of course, provides a real incentive for conserving the guano producers. In southwestern Cambodia, for example, one community introduced local laws to prohibit bat hunting and impose sanctions on offenders.

The practice clearly offers great potential for promoting both bat conservation and local livelihoods, although relatively little is known about the methods and species involved. But with some of our brightest graduate students showing interest in the subject and with key funding from BCI, that might change in the near future.

Meanwhile, to fill the need for readily accessible information on the conservation status and management requirements of Cambodian biodiversity, we launched the country's first peer-reviewed scientific journal, the Cambodian Journal of Natural History, in 2008. Designed to help local scientists share their findings and improve their writing skills, free printed copies are distributed within Cambodia, and every issue is freely available online. More than half of the authors to date are Cambodians. Members of our international editorial board gently coach and guide novice authors to improve their analysis and presentation.

Although great challenges remain and efforts to rebuild conservation capacity still depend heavily on support from overseas donors, the future for Cambodia's bats and other wildlife looks more promising than ever.

NEIL FUREY has worked in Southeast Asia since 1997, spending many years in Vietnam and undertaking assignments in Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia and Myanmar. He studied the ecology of Vietnamese bat populations for his Ph.D. and has a particular interest in community ecology, systematics and capacity building. A member of Fauna & Flora International (Cambodia), he manages the Master's Program in Biodiversity Conservation at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.

The activities described in this article were generously supported by the Darwin Initiative, the John D. and Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Zoological Parks and Gardens Board of Victoria (Australia).

All articles in this issue: