Woman park ranger blazes trail guarding Kratie’s rare hog deer

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Chhin Phat Thavdy stands at Prek Prasob Wildlife Sanctuary in Kratie province earlier this year. SUPPLIED

The Prek Prasob Wildlife Sanctuary is located in the flooded forests along the Mekong River in Chroy Banteay commune of Prek Prasob district in Kratie province.

The sanctuary is home to the extremely rare and highly endangered hog deer species, which happen to be protected by another rarity of sorts – one of the Ministry of Environment’s few women who are serving as park rangers.

Chhin Phat Thavdy, 36, was born in Kratie province’s Sambo district. Her husband works for an NGO in Kratie town while she has been a park ranger since 2017. She joined the rangers because she loves nature, forests and wildlife and she feels it is her duty to protect endangered animals and their forest habitat from those who would carelessly destroy the Kingdom’s natural resources.

Despite being the mother of a one-year-old child, Phat Thavdy doesn’t spend much of her time doing the traditional duties of a housewife, having resumed her job as a ranger as soon as she could after giving birth, calling the time she must spend away from her baby a sacrifice made out of concern for the loss of Cambodia’s forests and wildlife and out of love for her child, who she fears may otherwise grow up to live in a world with an environment totally ravaged by humans and devoid of wild animals and natural places.

Rising early each morning, she puts on her uniform and begins anew her mission to patrol the forest and protect the wildlife in the main target areas of the Prek Prasob Wildlife Sanctuary. Her patrols last until late in the afternoon before returning to the park ranger’s office for other duties.

The areas where they focus their patrols are the places where the hog deer typically are found and the areas where any perpetrators of forest crimes are likely to be caught. Because she is a woman, she is assigned to patrol during the day only, while male park rangers handle patrols at night.

“The challenges with patrolling the forest are that in the rainy season you’re soaking wet much of the time. The terrain is rough in places and sometimes I have to cross streams or we have to ride our motorbikes through the streams.

“I’ve patrolled the forest with the male park rangers and I’m not afraid of anything out there. I consider my fellow rangers like fathers or like brothers, it is like we are all one family,” she said.

Although her job as a ranger takes her on patrols deep into the forest and she faces all kinds of hardships almost daily, Phat Thavdy isn’t bothered by the difficulty of the job. In her view, there should be no discrimination or distinctions made in the workplace between men and women because what’s most important is the individual person’s commitment to doing the work.

“If women are determined that they want to do their part and help to conserve our natural resources, and they are willing to work as hard as the men, then they will be able to do the job,” she said.

Phat Thavdy has also received encouragement and support for her work as a park ranger from her family and especially her husband who admires the commitment she has to her work protecting the environment.

“If I could bring my baby with me, I would bring him while I was patrolling the forest, but it wouldn’t be practical. My child will be raised to understand the principle that we must love nature and when he’s a bit older I will show him the forest and teach him to plant trees,” she said.

On October 5, 2018, Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a sub-decree establishing the Prek Prasob Wildlife Sanctuary with a total area of 12,770 hectares in the Prek Prasob and Sambo districts of Kratie province.

According to a 2022 report by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature in Cambodia (WWF), the hog deer which are found in the sanctuary are currently listed as globally endangered on the IUCN Red List.

Previously thought to be extinct in Cambodia, a small population of hog deer were discovered in the sanctuary in 2006. There are thought to be a total of just 84 hog deer left in Cambodia and all of them live on roughly two hectares of land in the Kratie province sanctuary.

Neth Pheaktra, secretary of state and spokesman for the environment ministry, said that the total protected area in Cambodia is 7.3 million hectares and it is patrolled by a force of just 1,200 rangers. Thus, the ratio of rangers to land in need of protection stands at one ranger for every 10,000ha or more.

Prek Prasob Wildlife Sanctuary has just three rangers assigned to patrol it, including Phat Thavdy, which means that the total area to be protected of 12,770ha has one ranger protecting over 4,000ha each, a feat that is not just impractical but clearly impossible if all of it required regular patrolling.

Pheaktra claimed that the problem isn’t a lack of rangers, and when asked how so few rangers can possibly protect the wildlife in the sanctuary and especially the hog deer in this area, he noted that people from the nearby communities – in collaboration with the WWF – have organised into a volunteer force that act as assistants to the park rangers.

“At the Prek Prasob Wildlife Sanctuary we have three rangers, but we have 29 people from the community who have volunteered to assist the rangers with protecting the sanctuary. If we add them, there are actually 32 people who are protecting it,” he said.

The environment ministry and its conservation partners have said they consider the presence of hog deer, once thought to be extinct in Cambodia though still present in some other countries in the region, a source of hope for conservation in the Kingdom and the world.

Back in 2006, hog deer were rediscovered in Kratie province through the use of automatic cameras. Eam Sam Un, biodiversity research and monitoring manager at WWF-Cambodia, said that it had been 16 years since the hog deer’s reappearance when they returned and conducted a study in 2022 using camera traps to estimate the number of animals in the population there to be 84 total.

“The hog deer is a species that is difficult to spot and observe, just like other deer species often can be. The study of the status and distribution of this species was carried out by deploying automatic cameras in the area where it lives,” he said.

According to the environment ministry, the Prek Prasob Wildlife Sanctuary – including the small portion of it where the hog deer are found – is under strict co-protection by the ministry’s rangers with support from the WWF and community patrols.

Currently, the ministry and its partners have undertaken a zero-snaring campaign to save species like the hog deer in Cambodia from the ravages of hunting and trapping, with the aim of eliminating all types of traps or snares and ending the illegal wildlife trade.