From city boy to forest protector in Cambodia
Rangers like Mr. Sin Satha from the Srepok Wildlife Sanctuary in Cambodia put themselves at great risks to help save the ecosystems that Cambodia’s threatened wildlife calls home, and that communities depend on for their livelihoods. This year, WWF is proud to present Mr. Satha the Dr Rimington Award for exceptional contributions to the conservation of wild tigers. This is his story.
The largest intact dry forests in Indochina lie in Mondulkiri province, in northeastern Cambodia in an area known as the Eastern Plains Landscape (EPL). WWF supports the management of two protected areas: Srepok and Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuaries, covering almost 6,000 square kilometres and home to globally endangered wildlife such as the Asian elephant, Indochinese Leopard, Giant Ibis, White-shoulder Ibis, Green Peafowl and Siamese Crocodile. Once home to tigers, it has been designated by WWF and the Royal government of Cambodia as a priority site for a tiger reintroduction programme.
Crucial to protecting this area is the law enforcement team consisting of the Ministry of Environment’s rangers, local authorities and communities. And among the committed, passionate and well-trained guardians of nature is Mr. Sin Satha.
All his life, Satha has lived in Mondulkiri province, where nature is known to thrive. He was born as the second son to a middle-income family, his mother a local grocery vendor and his father a retired soldier. Growing up, Satha fell in love with nature by listening to the elders in his neighborhood talking about the wonders of the forests’ wildlife. A pure Mondulkiri city boy, he only learned about the forests from the older generation and only saw the pictures of its wildlife through the black-and-white TV screen he had when he was 10 years old.
But today, Satha, 28, now lives his childhood folktales. Now a ranger, he experiences the magnificence of the wilderness firsthand.
“I love nature, forests, wildlife, and I love going to work in the wild,” said Satha.
He began his career in 2016 as a contracted staff of the Mondulkiri Provincial Department of Environment at Dey Khmao, one of the 11 ranger outposts in SWS. Now the chief of rangers in SWS and the leader at his base, he and his team of 60 rangers spend day and night patrolling the Mondulkiri wilderness, struggling through thorny shrubs, scorching heat and blasting thunderstorms to look for snares and crack down on forest offenders.
“A ranger’s life is not easy,” says James Peter Lourens, a WWF Law Enforcement Technical Advisor, who trains the rangers thanks to support from WWF. “But because of their passion, these rangers have the endurance and perseverance it takes to fulfil the duties of protecting the magnificent wildlife and its natural habitat.”
Confronted everyday with the many unforeseen challenges of the forest, trust, solidarity and camaraderie has become the core value of the team. As the Khmer slogan goes: “At our homes, we are the children of different mothers. In the forests, we are the children of the same mother.” These rangers have each other’s backs and stand shoulder to shoulder through all the hard times. They share their food, as well as their shelter, the ground as their mattress and the forests as their roof.
“The most enjoyable time is when we can stop and rest to eat while on patrol in the forest. It’s the only time we can feel a bit relaxed and warm, and the time we can tease each other to make each other’s days,” Satha said.
For everyone, bad days are usually when their motorbikes break down, when team members get lost at night-time or get sick in the dense forests. But the worst ones are when they hear gunshots, mostly from confrontation between the team and the offenders — sometimes ending up in the death of a ranger.
In February 2019, one of Satha’s team members was shot and injured in the leg while on a night patrol in SWS. Both the law enforcement teams and equipment in SWS are currently outnumbered by the scope and complexity of the protected area.
“We need to be faster and smarter than the offenders. We need to double our efforts to save wildlife and natural resources here. And we are not scared,” Satha said.
Setting aside all the difficulties and risks, being in nature makes the work rewarding for Satha. Enjoying a close encounter with wild animals, whether it’s a Red Muntjac, a Wild Pig or a Green Peafowl, it enlivens him to see wildlife still running freely in the forests.
Behind these moments are intense physical and emotional challenges. They’ve saved many animals’ lives from snares – a silent and indiscriminate killer – but also seen many of them lost.
“The dry forest becomes lively and cheerful with them running and flying. Without wildlife, the forest lacks beauty, and seeing the forests without the animals would be miserable for us,” Satha said. “I admire the landscape most after the rain, when the forests are lush green. It is so absorbing and I become deeply connected to it.”
In 2019, Satha saw a Banteng for the first time in his life – sadly enough, it was caught in a snare. Even though the team saved animals’ lives, images of other animals that died haunted Satha and his team, who are even more painful to see wildlife that survived the snare-trapping in serious injuries.
In 2019, the combined effort of law enforcement coordinated by Satha with all of the rangers, local authorities and communities in SWS led to the confiscation of more than 2,600 sets of snare/trap, 1,100 meters of electric wire snares, 229 chainsaws, 126 motorbikes and 36 trucks used by suspected offenders in facilitating their illegal activities inside the protected area.
The team also helped in the arrest of 116 suspected offenders, who were brought to justice. These efforts may have been a deterrent to wildlife crimes but a surge in poaching and illegal logging will prompt the need of increased and sophisticated prevention efforts to address ongoing threats to the protected areas. In this context, more investments in law enforcement are needed including sufficient increase in the number of rangers, such as the dedicated and well-equipped staff like Satha. In parallel, the police and judiciary need to help ensure strict punishment on poaching and illegal logging as a deterrent to other crimes upholding the rule of law to protect the country’s remaining wildlife.
About the Dr Rimington Award: presented by WWF annually since 2018, the award recognises outstanding contribution to the conservation of tigers. This year it honours the achievements of a ranger. The 2018 winner was Debbie Banks, the Environmental Investigation Agency’s Tiger and Wildlife Crime Campaign Leader.
Written by Pha Sina, Communications Officer at WWF-Cambodia