Twilight of the haunted headwaters of Virachey National Park?July 9, 2015
In the mid-19th Century the French explorer Henry Mouhot was sitting in a hut in the thick jungle of central Cambodia when he wrote the following lines:
“We are surrounded by forests, which are infested with elephants, buffaloes, tigers, wild boars, and the ground all about is covered with their footprints. We live in almost a besieged place, every moment dreading some attack of the enemy, and keeping our guns constantly loaded. Sometimes they come close to our quarters, and we cannot go even a few steps into the woods without hearing them….From time to time, also, I stop to listen to the roaring of a tiger, who is wandering round our dwelling and looking longingly at the pigs through their fence of planks and bamboos. Again, I hear the rhinoceros breaking down the bamboos which oppose his progress towards the brambles encircling our garden, on which he intends to banquet.”
Mount had just been to Angkor, being one of the first Westerners to see it, and the great Buddhist structure was at that time the abode of leopards, deer, and gibbons. He was on his way to Luang Prabang (where he would die of malaria) and before he reached the unnavigable Mekong River waterfalls at Si Phon Don he shot a leopard in mid-air as it sprung at one of his porters. Along the way he traveled through a sea of tropical forest that constituted the whole known world of the local people.
Mouhot’s Cambodia is no more (though they are reintroducing gibbons to the forests of Angkor Park — an exciting endeavor). Tigers and rhinos are extinct in modern Cambodia, and leopards probably hanging by a thread (although the smaller cats seem to be faring better). The great tapestry of tree crowns that blanketed Cambodia are still remembered by many people alive today, though all but a few very important (and some substantial) fragments remain.
I can only speak with anything resembling authority about Virachey National Park (VNP) way up in the Kingdom’s Northeast. That 3,325 sq. kilometer swath of jungle, mountains, rivers, and grasslands took on the name “Virachey” (which means something like ‘strong, victorious man’) in 1993, when NGOs nudged the Royal Cambodian Government into gazetting it as a National Park. VNP has experienced a rollercoaster of highs and lows since its creation, enjoying at turns strong protection and virtual anarchy, and at times it can feel like this is its final hour.
VNP is one of those precious relics of tropical forest that remain, and although it has certainly been bruised and battered in recent years, this is one Park that cannot be lost.
The core area of VNP is in better shape than any other protected area in Cambodia, including the Cardamom Mountains — at least that’s what an experienced conservation NGO worker recently told me. Inspiring words, and they ring true as I’ve been into the remote interior of VNP many times, setting up camera traps and investigating the status of the border area with Laos. Earlier this year we hiked for five days (one-way) from the Sesan River to reach the sacred Haling-Halang mountains, the high ridge of which serves as the international border with Laos.
The forest at the base of that massif is simply exuberant. It is a primeval world gargantuan trees, streaming vines, whooping gibbons, growling hornbills, and enigmatic mammals — a magical place straight out of Lord of the Rings. To date our cameras have uncovered black bear, sun bear, gaur, dhole, clouded leopard, golden cat, marbled cat, leopard cat, douc langur, stump-tailed macaque, pig-tailed macaque, binturong, hog badger, serow, sambar deer, muntjac, and many other species. Mouhot never made it here.
The day after we summited the border peak (where we unexpectedly came across a cement marker; I later learned that this was helicoptered up in 2003 as part of a joint Cambodia-Laos effort to demarcate the border), we followed an elephant trail that was littered with old piles of dung sprouting with mushrooms. This natural forest road, trampled smooth by forest giants, led through even more bewitching forest. “Number one forest in Cambodia,” VNP ranger Sou remarked several times that day. As we followed along we came upon a strange tree carving. It was a sketch of a primitive-looking man knifed into the bark of tree. It gave me a strange feeling, and my old Brao friend Kam-la was disturbed by it. “He says it is a sign of the spirits of Haling-Halang,” Sou translated. Kam-la looked down and muttered a few more words while looking nervously at his feet. “And he says it might also be a sign of the Tek-Tek.” Kam-la was scared.
Highlanders across Ratanakiri speak of the “Tek Tek” or “wild man of the forest” who supposedly haunts the rugged border peaks shared by Cambodia and Laos. The southern half of all these mountains lay in VNP, while the northern sections belong to Laos’ all but unknown Nam Ghong Provincial Protected Area (NGPAA) and which go by the name of the Kaseng Mountains in Lao. In Laos the Indochinese Sasquatch goes by the name of Phi kong koy, and it has been described calling out chillingly into the night of the Annamite Mountains of Laos as recently as 2015 in William deBuys’ evocative book The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth’s Rarest Creatures, which is about the Saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis), a primitive bovine native to the Annamite Cordillera that was last camera-trapped in 2013 but may already be extinct today due to hunting pressures.
In Vietnam this mysterious monkey-man is called the Ngoui Rung (literally ‘man of the forest’) and both American and Vietnamese combatants claim to have seen and fired on the hairy creatures during the War of Indochina (one US commander told biologist Jeffrey A. McNeely that the monster ripped two of his soldiers heads off (Soul of the Tiger, p. 325). Some might speculate that his words are a testament to what drugs can do to your brain, but the man is apparently a US official of some importance today.
This magnificent ecosystem and its enchanting inhabitants are under serious threat today. The park, which has essentially been split in half with its Stung Treng and Ratanakiri sections now separately administered, is being shredded near Siem Pang district, and rumors are going around that some sort of border road is under construction in that area of the park, a road which will undoubtedly be used for loggers, poachers, agriculturalists, miners, everyone. It’s old news that VNP’s eastern flank alongside Vietnam has been under heavy pressure for many years, and additional rumors have it that Vietnam will finance a “border belt” road inside of Laos that would hug VNP. One can imagine how easy it will be for Laos and Vietnam to plunder what are currently VNP’s most inaccessible areas if this plan goes ahead. I spent some time on Google Earth zooming and searching inside of Laos’ NGPPA and sure enough small dirt roads lead very close to the border with VNP, stopping only where the high border mountains become too steep. Two of these roads lead to Haling-Halang, and surely footpaths lead into VNP.
The image above shows a poacher (most likely Vietnamese) with a large rifle hunting solo on the Haling-Halang border peak. He is days away from any settlement on either side of the border and almost certainly used the new dirt roads in Laos to penetrate VNP.
People will say that Cambodia has to develop, that it has to “catch up” with Japan, the EU, and the USA (that’s pipe dream, of course, and everyone knows it; Cambodia cannot and does not need to “catch up” with Japan and USA in terms of GDP in order for the Kingdom’s residents to have healthy, fulfilling lives). To begin with, I would argue that preserving portions of a country’s natural heritage is part of the development process and is a clear sign of development. Does Cambodia want to be the “Haiti of Southeast Asia” — a country that has lost 98% of its natural forest cover and stands to suffer a great deal more poverty in the years to come?
Some will say that environmentalists are idealistic and naive, but to me it is painfully obvious that those who argue that cutting down all the trees, dredging and damming all the rivers, and destroying the natural environment will somehow result in every family having a beautiful home, two new cars in the driveway, and children studying in the USA and UK are utterly and hopelessly utopian. People who put forth such hogwash are delusional, and usually stand to profit by it. On the contrary it has been shown time and again that devastating the natural environment exacerbates rather than fixes social inequality.
Mouhot envisioned a future in which Cambodia would become something like the breadbasket of the world, supplying cotton, coffee, indigo, and many other productions to global markets. He didn’t foresee rubber, cassava, and other agricultural products as destroying the wilderness he so loved (and he also presciently foresaw foreign powers controlling this production). Probably the Kingdom’s jungles were simply so vast that the ideas of animal extinctions and wholesale deforestation would have sounded ludicrous. I envy him his perspective, and I am sure that he would be dumbfounded and heartbroken by what he’d see of the Kingdom’s forest cover and wildlife populations today.
Today a rolling nightmare of destruction is threatening and wiping out the last wild places of Indochina. Some say that the anarchy of Laos makes Cambodia look well-organized and efficient in terms of environmental protection, and Vietnam’s protected areas, the old conservationists hands bemoan, has simply been butchered. Virachey, as well as the Cardamom Mountains, Prey Lang, and Mondulkiri Protected Forest are some of the last great gems not only for Cambodia, but for Indochina, and the world.
I hope to visit Cambodia again this Fall (I’ve been doing ethnographic research, trekking, and conservation projects in Virachey since 2010) to give a presentation to the Ministry of Environment showcasing the work that the Virachey National Park Staff and my small conservation group, Habitat ID, have done. I want to help the government visualize just how special and beautiful Virachey is, to help them feel proud of Cambodia’s amazing natural heritage. We will also need new memory cards, batteries, and funds to send the rangers and porters in to check the cameras. If anyone would like to help out, you can do so here at Save Virachey National Park https://savevirachey.wordpress.com/2014/12/14/support-our-january-2015-camera-trapping-expedition/. You can also contribute by donating memory cards, new batteries, and other field supplies to VNP (if you’d like to do this, email me at: [email protected]). You can also help out by trekking in the Park and giving local highlanders some confidence in the concept of ecotourism and the idea that wildlife and trees are worth money standing and alive.
I wrote earlier that tigers and rhinos are extinct in Cambodia, and it’s difficult to say that Tek-Teks are extinct when their existence has never been proven. However, when one stands on one of the many savannah hills of the Veal Thom Grasslands and looks out at the rugged chain of jungle-clothed border mountains so far away and steep and virtually inaccessible, it is not impossible to imagine that a few tigers might still prowl the crags, letting out a lonely roar from their hilltop eyries, and that Tek-Teks still call out in the night in the most remote valleys, sending chills down poachers’ spines. Virachey still has the kind of habitat that can set the mind to dreaming, that can let a visitor know of Mouhot’s Cambodia, whatever is left of it.