On Monday morning we took a cycle across Phnom Penh to meet Mr Saveng Ith and Miss Chhuoy Kaylan from the Centre for Biodiversity Conservation (CBC) at the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP).
Back in 2005, Fauna and Flora International (FFI) and the Royal University of Phnom Penh established Cambodia’s first Master’s degree course in Biodiversity Conservation and Mr Saveng was a student in the first cohort. He has since gone on to complete a PHD and is now a senior researcher and lecturer at the CBC and we were lucky enough to have him show us around, accompanied by one of this year’s current students, Kaylan.
The university capacity building project has gone from strength to strength since its establishment in 2005. In 2007 a herbarium and zoological collection was founded, 2008, the country’s first peer reviewed scientific journal was launched –the Cambodian Journal of Natural History. In 2009 a multidisciplinary conservation research group was created and in 2011, the Centre for Biodiversity Conservation (CBC) was established as a discrete unit within the faculty of science, recognising conservation as its own specialist entity. This year, as the centre celebrates 10 years of the MSc in Biodiversity Conservation, more than 100 Cambodians have been trained through the programme and vocational training delivered by 88 in-service professionals. Very importantly provision has been made over the ten years to help financially support students through grants and scholarships. This has ensured less people are likely to drop out – unable to earn enough money for fees and living costs while studying. The course itself is heavily oversubscribed with 70 applicants for around 20 places.
We were shown around the herbarium and zoological collections by Saveng, Kaylan, Thi Sothearen and Ny Naiky and learnt about the various and exciting projects being undertaken by the students, from research on vultures to bats to marine turtles and river dolphins. We looked in awe at herbarium specimens dating back to 1866, some of which have been sent to the CBC from Paris – specimens collected by French researchers during the colonial era. The team are doing a great job sifting through the piles of specimens and trying to translate and decipher the often incomprehensible handwriting. However, more funding is needed if they are ever to get through the endless piles that are sat on the shelves as it is a vast job that also requires the help of an experienced botanist.
The centre also has a collaborative monitoring project and applied research projects undertaken by 22 Cambodian scientists. Conservation actions include gibbon monitoring in Bokor national park; a hog deer conservation plan, investigating the masked finfoot (a bird) and fishing cat. New species have even been discovered in the Cardamons –the caecilian (Ichthyophis cardamomensis, 2015) and wolf snake (Lycodon zoosvictoriae, 2014).
When asked why he decided to study conservation, Mr Saveng told us of his worries about the rate of deforestation and illegal exploitation of natural resources – two huge threats that face Cambodia’s biodiversity. However, with an increase in technology he believes the conservation message is now reaching more and more people in even the most remote areas of Cambodia.
“Our parents in the villages only know of two jobs – doctor and business man. So when I came home and said I wanted to study conservation no one knew what I was talking about. They were worried there were no jobs for this. Luckily my mother had heard of health NGOs who had been in the area before. So I explained there were jobs with NGOs that do conservation. Now she understands more and is happy for me. It is hard being a girl to persuade your family to let you go away and study in the city. They worry a lot.”
Sothearen has a different tale to tell.
“My mother owned a roadside stall selling wild animals for food. Growing up I ate them all. Now she has stopped. It is difficult to find the animals around our village they are very rare. If people do find them they can sell them for a much higher price than before. It is against Buddhist teaching to take life so my mother likes what I am doing. It is a way to balance out her past.”
In terms of jobs, past MSc students have since gone on to work for various conservation projects and programmes, for example, for WWF, Conservation International, Forestry Administration, and have been involved in advocacy work and community based programmes. With 100s of students being trained through CBC, the future for conservation in Cambodia is certainly promising and from meeting some of the students there is definitely an exciting feel and buzz to it. Our visit made it abundantly clear that this enthusiastic and passionate group of people are eager to tackle and raise awareness of the threats that face their country’s biodiversity.
For more information you can visit:http://www.fauna-flora.org/training-cambodia-nextconservation-scientists/