The flora and fauna of Cambodia has suffered a fair bit over the past few decades. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Pol Pot and his cronies fled to sanctuary in the vast swathes of forested mountains in the north and west and used the cover to launch hit and run attacks on occupying Vietnamese forces and their Cambodian allies, with similar guerilla strategies that Victor Charlie had inflicted on Uncle Sam in the 60’s and 70’s.
Understandably pissed off by this, the Vietnamese, under General Le Duc Anh implemented the K5 plan. About as workable as building a fence around Mexico, a 700km border buffer zone was stripped of trees and replanted with enough anti-personnel ordnance to blow up the moon. At some point after this ecological and humanitarian folly, those in the military and some smart cookie farmers, such as the ironically named Mr Try (pronounced tree) realized that these pesky tonnages of timber giving refuge to Maoist saboteurs, hidden booby-traps and blocking important roads were worth money, a hell of a lot of lovely, paper, spendable money.
Then came the poor farmers, never adverse to a bit of slash n’ burn agriculture. In a country unable to feed a population suffering regular famines, tree hugging legislation wasn’t exactly a top concern. Anybody echoing the tactics of ‘Swampy’ of British environmental protest movement fame, would have ended up in a shallow grave with an AK exit wound coming out of their dreadlocks.
As the forest was stripped, the wildlife was eradicated, through habitat loss and easier hunting by Cambodians who, to supplement a diet of rice, will eat anything larger than a mouse which is stupid enough to breathe and move. A close third in the logging race, behind Nigeria and Vietnam, Cambodia went from one of the most bio-diverse areas outside of the Amazon to an eco-apocalypse within a generation. In 2005 a UN report from the Food and Agriculture Organization estimated 25,000 square kilometres of forest had been lost between 1990 and 2005.
It was in 2005 that King Sihamoni, a few months into his reign, made a Royal Decree on the Designation of Animals and Plants as National Symbols of the Kingdom of Cambodia to bring awareness and offer some very limited protection to some iconic species.
In case readers are unfamiliar with the specimens, here is a brief lowdown on the lucky 7 which made the list.
1. The National Mammal: The Kouprey. “Bos suavely”
Not actually a Sihamoni symbol, the poor old forest cow was given the honour of national animal by then Prince Sihanouk back in the 60s. Only discovered by zoology in 1937, very little is known about this most unfortunate ox, except for its run of bad luck. The first, and only live specimen studied was shipped to France as an Indian bison, or gaur, only to grow into something weird and hitherto unknown to western science. Sadly, this poor specimen starved to death under the Nazi occupation, which is ironic as German scientists were keen on reinventing the giant aurochs, believed by some to be a close cousin of the kouprey. Although, in the grand scheme of things, the death of a zoo cow was probably not heaviest the weight on Hitler’s conscience at the time.
In 1964, US biologist Dr Charles H Wharton managed to corral 5 live kouprey, although 3 escaped and the other 2 keeled other and died. The last confirmed sighting by a man of science, also Dr Wharton was in 1967. Then Cambodia was bombed back to the stone age and the animal was lost forever. Only anecdotal evidence exists for a herd supposedly roaming around the Thai border in the 1980s, but several expeditions have been led, including one by Nate Thayer and Tim Page, and despite costing a small fortune, they found diddly-squat.
Controversy has even dogged the right of a kouprey to be its own species, rather than a hybrid of wild ox/zebu cattle, but genetic research has come down on the side of the forest ox. A bit late, all things considered, as they are most likely extinct anyway. More recent environmental action now focuses on protecting what is left out there, instead of pouring cash into hunting big-horned sasquatches.
2. The National Bird: The Giant Ibis, Pseudibis gigantic
Once a common site along the Mekong lowlands 100 years ago, the largest member of the ibis family is now reduced to an optimistic 100 breeding pairs left in Cambodia and Laos. Despite being a metre high and over a metre long, very little is known about the habits of this oversized avian. Apparently they eat all sorts of aquatic life, from eels to frogs and worms. The loss of wild buffalo digging up wallowing holes, along with the usual hunting and habitat destruction and climate change has almost seen the total demise of the wonderful wader. Through the work of dedicated twitchers, eco-tourism is now the name of the game when trying to save the species, with Tmatboey in Preah Vihear reputed to be the best place to catch a glimpse of one in the wild. A series of projects is helping locals learn to cash in on this boom in a sustainable manner. A royal decree named the giant ibis the national bird in 1994.
3. The National Reptile: The Southern River Terrapin AKA The Royal Turtle Batagur affines
The Chinese, gifted at eating just about anything, will pay big money for endangered wildlife. The rarer the better, with a price tag to match for consumption, medicine, magic or just something to have around the house, the trade in just about everything seems to head north from Cambodia, if it hasn’t already been eaten at source. The trade in turtles and terrapins to China has decimated wild populations of batagur across Asia.
The eggs of this large freshwater reptile were once a preserved delicacy of the Royal Cambodian Court and each animal belonged to the King, a bit like swans in England. Locals capturing them would take them to be blessed by monks and released back into their preferred habitats of streams and mangroves. Yet by the 1980s the terrapin was thought to have been hunted to extinction, until re-discovered in Koh Kong province in 2000. It has been the National Reptile since 2005, and a captive breeding program has seen some of the animals returned to the wild, although it is not known whether the King claims his ancient right to enjoy the odd egg on toast for breakfast anymore.
4. National Fish: The Giant Mekong Barb/Siamese Carp Catlocarpio siamensis
The cyprinid family of fish is both the largest of fish species, with some 3000 species, and the largest family of vertebrates, and Indochina native Catlocarpio siamensis, also known as giant Siamese carp/Mekong barb, is the largest of the clan. Despite all the superlatives, the only habitats of this mighty monster – the Mae Klong, Mekong and Chao Phraya rivers – have become so overfished, polluted and damned up that this king of the deep is on the critically endangered list.
Here are some statistics: the maximum length is somewhere in the region of 3 metres and they can weigh up to 300kg, although none over 1.8 metres and 180kg has been caught since 1964. Cambodian fishermen pulled out 200 tonnes (yes tonnes) in that same year; in 1980 only 50 fish (yes fish) were caught from the murky Mekong. 2000 saw just 10 specimens.
This passive, mostly vegetarian creature, which prefers to live in pairs in deep pools, can be seen on the bas reliefs of Angkor Wat, and, apparently has scales which make the best shuttlecocks for that Cambodian sporty past time of ‘keepy puppy.’
At the same time the King gave the fish a royal decree in Cambodia, in 2005, the neighbours in Saigon were getting into in a commercial farming racket, and now Mekong barb are a common site in Vietnamese markets and restaurants, with a million cultivated in the delta region each year. Efforts to breed and release haven’t fared so well, with 50,000 young fish set loose failing to reach 1kg. Although bringing home the bacon as a cultivated cash crop, in the wild the Mekong barb is about as fucked as a halal-taco stand at a Donald Trump rally.
5. National Tree: The Sugar Palm
A tree which gives out a juice to get you pissed – I waxed lyrical about this in another article last year and I can’t be arsed to do it again. Great tree, great laxative, and useful for about a gazillion other things. Not so endangered, but beats the much sought after rosewood tree (good enough to get shot at by Thai commandoes for) and favourite precursor choice for 90s ravers, with a passion for arbophilia and techno, the sassafras.
6. National Fruit: The Chicken Egg Banana/Lady Finger banana Musa Aromatica
Why isn’t Cambodia officially known as a banana republic? Because it still has a king. One whom is, incidentally, reputed to be a big fan of fruits. Despite all the variety of flora in Cambodia, the cheak pong moan made the top of the fruity list. Shorter, fatter and sweeter than those that the Man from Del Monte swans around saying yes to, the chicken egg ‘nana is a well seen sight up and down the country, where it is eaten in all conceivable forms, and the plant (actually a herb, not a tree) can be used in all manner of imaginative ways. Ancestral spirits love the things too, as they are offered up at private altars and at the pagodas, along with sticks of smoldering incense for every occasion going.
However, at the end of the day, it’s only a banana, as common as dog shit in inner city parks, and nothing to get too excited about.
7. National Flower: Rumdoul Mitrella mesnyi (wrong) Sphaerocoryne affinis (correct)
His Royal Highness The King is also said to be a floral aficionado, and gave the common rumduol the honour of a royal decree and rank of national bloom. This fragrant member of the soursop fruit family is highly regarded in these parts for its aroma, strongest in the early morning and evening, and grown all over the place to try to mask the smell of cow dung and smoldering plastic. Districts are named after it, scented candles are made from it and beautiful Cambodian ladies are compared to it, like a summer’s day.
Next time I have a cup of tea and a fairy cake with himself, I’m going to make a few more suggestions to beef up the list, however I’m still undecided on some of the catagories.
National Insect: Tiger Mosquito (dengue, baby), Cockroach, Housefly or Big Bastard Moth?
National Lampoon: Sam Rainsy?
National 4×4: So many choices.
National National Holiday: There’s always room for one more.