Alarm at loss of rare ungulates

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Environment ministry spokesman Neth Pheaktra shows a photo of the endangered banteng in a press conference. Yousos Apdoulrashim

Senior environment officials and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-Cambodia) have expressed concerns about a dramatic decline in populations of ungulates – large hoofed mammals – in the Srepok and Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuaries located in Mondulkiri province.

In a visit to the sanctuaries on January 17, Ministry of Environment spokesman Neth Pheaktra led WWF-Cambodia representatives and a group of more than 30 local and international journalists.

He noted that local wildlife have suffered steep declines in numbers over the past 10 years and highlighted an urgent need for innovative solutions to reverse the trend.

During a decade-long ungulate monitoring programme in both sanctuaries, Banteng, Muntjac deer, and wild boar populations were observed to have decreased by 72 per cent, 52 per cent and 18 per cent, respectively, Pheaktra explained.

Surveys also documented very low encounter rates with Eld’s and sambar deer and gaur bison, suggesting that only small and fragmented populations of these species still live in the region.

“The decline rates highlighted in the report are a wake-up call for all of us but also present us with a unique opportunity to reverse the trends. The declines would have been worse without the tireless efforts of law enforcement to protect these areas,” he said.

Pheaktra added that traditional hunting has been superseded by an unprecedented crisis of poaching and snaring fuelled by an illegal wildlife trade which he said is the primary cause of the severe depletion of ungulates in the parks.

WWF-Cambodia’s Biodiversity Research & Monitoring Manager Milou Groenenberg described snares as a principal threat to ungulate species – and also a major contributor towards the rapid decline of natural predators like Indochinese leopards who prey on them.

A joint press release from WWF-Cambodia, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and other partners said: “Although the ‘Population Status of Ungulates’ report shows the situation is critical, there is still hope to save these wild animal species from extinction.

“But without immediate and innovative actions to counteract the key threats and their drivers, the biodiversity will continue to decline rapidly and ultimately disappear.

“The Ministry of Environment and WWF are currently studying the possibilities for the implementation of a comprehensive ungulate recovery programme, urgently required to reverse the declining population trends, while tackling the root cause of wildlife trade,” the report said.

WWF-Cambodia country director Seng Teak said it is not too late to make a difference, but immediate collective conservation actions must be taken at all levels.

“The scientific findings in the report highlight the urgent need for comprehensive and innovative solutions in order to reverse the wildlife decline, while calling for better ways of managing, using and sharing natural resources,” he said.

The environment ministry and WWF-Cambodia will continue to work closely with local communities and partner organisations to develop intensive conservation measures to reduce poaching and increase the effectiveness of law enforcement.

According to the report, the current populations of banteng are estimated at 371 in the core area of the Srepok Wildlife Sanctuary and 485 in the Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary. Red muntjac populations are estimated to be 1,425 and 4,453, respectively, in the two sanctuaries.