The most valuable trees in remote Virachey National Park in northeast Cambodia are being selectively cut by armed illegal loggers and transported to Vietnam, environmental officials said.
A World Wildlife Fund-led contingent witnessed the logging and a network of recently bulldozed roads last week after spending two days hiking into the secluded 332,500-hectare park. The group also observed Vietnamese trucks transporting the logs.
The park has been plagued by wildlife poaching and rattan cutting in recent years, but a 20-person group that observed luxury hardwood harvesting confirmed what had been rumored and feared by environmentalists in recent months.
“Now, Virachey park is being logged over,” said a high-level environmental official, adding he feared reprisals if he disclosed his name. “They are looking for and cutting the best trees throughout the park.”
Officials said the logging isn’t as intensive as in some other parts of Ratanakkiri province, which has environmental watchdogs and forestry consultants as having the biggest illegal logging problem in the country.
But what makes the current cutting in Virachey so troublesome, environmentalists say, is that it is in one of the country’s most pristine areas—near the intersection of Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.
“The hill-tribe people are very disgruntled, but they do not know what to do,” the environmental official said. “The loggers are under protection of the armed soldiers. We have only a few park rangers, how can we oppose the loggers?”
Muth Khieu, a close aide to Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, said Tuesday that he did not know about the cutting in Virachey National Park. “But the government cannot allow the trees to be cut down,” he said.
He noted that Hun Sen recently signed an agreement to stop illegal logging. That is in reference to the second prime minister’s support of a six-point plan devised by the World Bank to crack down on illegal logging. First Prime Minister Ung Huot also approved the plan.
Environmentalists have said that they will believe the prime ministers’ commitment when action is taken.
Vietnamese embassy officials couldn’t be reached for comment on Tuesday.
Under a new World Wildlife Fund (WWF) program, 20 park rangers were hired earlier this year to protect Virachey National Park, and educate citizens about illegal logging and wildlife trafficking. The World Bank also recently sent a team to the area to assess the possibility of funding a multimillion-dollar preservation project.
Some estimate that about 2,000 trees have been cut in Virachey in the past one or two months alone. At two to three cubic meters a tree, that would represent a harvest of about 5,000 cubic meters of trees.
Luxury hardwoods are believed to fetch between $400 and $800 per cubic meter on the world market. That would put the value of the recent cutting at as high as $4 million.
Illegal logging elsewhere in Ratanakkiri has been estimated at about $200 million by Global Witness, an environmental watchdog.
The logging in Virachey is suspected to be fairly new, in part because a group searching earlier this year for war remains didn’t see evidence of roads during its daily helicopter flights into the area. Logging activity in a sliver of Virachey National Park did show up on a recent flyover by a World Bank technical assistance group.
Jack Hurd, a conservation specialist with WWF’s Indochina program based in Hanoi, said in an interview earlier this year that the WWF program in Cambodia is to establish a presence that eventually will lead to change.
“There’s not a lot that you can do [immediately], but you can be out there,” he said.
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