The Phnom Tamao Zoological Park and Wildlife Rescue Centre (PTWRC) has denied the claims of an online foreign-based media outlet that forest clearance operations have been carried out to make way for a new road through the sanctuary.

PTWRC director Nhek Ratanapich said that limited clearance was made on an old corridor, which serves the dual purpose of preventing the spread of forest fires and also enables visitors to travel to the Phnom Tamao conservation area, located in Kandoeung commune of Takeo province’s Bati district, just outside the capital.

US-based online media outlet VOD reported in a video released on December 10 that the clearance violated a recent government sub-decree which guarantees the protection of the sanctuary, citing alleged quotes from a Wildlife Alliance official and a local activist. 

Wildlife Alliance dismissed the claims as “fake news”, saying in a press release the next day that VOD had misled the public by “mixing” a statement by its manager Nick Marx with that of a prominent local activist.

“I am not against development but all forests should be kept protected,” it quoted Marx as telling VOD prior to the release of its video.

Ratanapich of the PTWRC also took issue with VOD’s claims. 

“The [corridor] has existed for a long time and does not affect anything. It is not a new road that has been carved into the forest. Technically, it was built to prevent wildfires from spreading. It is much like having a fence around our house to protect it. It would be unfortunate if we didn’t have fire breaks,” he said.

He added that the sanctuary is currently surrounded with fences. Should there be no such corridor, wildlife would be in severe danger in the event of a wildfire.

According to Ratanapich, a total of 20km of fire-prevention trails have been constructed, with improvements to the final 1.3km underway.

He explained that fires occur every year, destroying dozens of hectares of the forests. Local authorities and the park staff normally work together to extinguish the blazes.

Im Rachna, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, noted that the road under construction is on the border between the Phnom Tamao Sanctuary and private lands outside the sanctuary.

She added that the road is vital not only for preventing the fire, but also to allow the travel of local residents. She referred to the VOD report, which accused the government and the agriculture ministry of destroying the forest, as fake news.

She said that officials for Wildlife Alliance recently met twice with agriculture minister Dith Tina, with both sides stressing their cooperation and support for all actions that will protect the natural resources and wildlife at the PTWRC.

She questioned the authenticity of the comments by the Wildlife Alliance official that were quoted in the report.

Duch Mol, a 71-year-old villager who lives near Tamao zoo, said he had often observed forest fires at the park during the dry season. He appreciated the construction of the road as it prevented fires and made travel easier for him and his fellow villagers.

“I am happy that this road was constructed. Without it, I would have to detour 8km,” he added.