angkor wat
December 29, 2014

Wildlife returning to one of the planet’s greatest historical sites

John Hopton for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

One of the world’s most spectacular historical sites could now have a future full of remarkable wildlife too, as conservationists try to restore the forests around Cambodia’s Angkor Wat to the teeming levels of animal life that they once had.

The areas surrounding the ancient temple complex of Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument on earth, were once filled with deer, monkeys, birds, big cats and many other creatures until commercial hunting decimated the wildlife population. Now, Englishman Nick Marx has the goal of “re-wilding” Angkor Wat’s jungle. A pair of pileated gibbons has been reintroduced, and Marx hopes that several other species will follow.

“The pair had a baby in September,” Marx told the Independent. “We've taken up another pair of gibbons and a trio of silver langurs, which are a kind of leaf-eating monkey, which we hope to release later. Ultimately, what I would like to see is herds of sambar and muntjac deer, gibbons and silver langurs in the trees, greenpea fowl in the open areas and clearings.” He added that: “Visitors to Angkor Wat will be able to see the wonderful wildlife of Cambodia and it will focus the mind of the government on the benefits of wildlife conservation in its country.”

“The area of forest is beautiful and mature. It's a unique site but it's devoid of wildlife now,” Marx explains. “We want to introduce different species that would be appropriate, such as a cross-selection of small carnivores, herbivores, primates and deer, to try to get a build-up of wildlife populations with sufficient genetic diversity.”

The vast temple city of Angkor Wat, built in the 12th century by the Hindu-Buddhist Khmer Empire, is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but protecting the wildlife around it could prove to be much more difficult. There is a massive demand for a wide range of animals in the region, not only to be sold in Cambodia’s food markets but to be shipped abroad, for example to China where parts of the captured wildlife are used in traditional medicine.

“China has done a pretty good job of decimating its own wildlife and now it is moving into other countries,” Marx says. “There is a certain amount of consumption within Cambodia, but most of the valuable items that can bring a high price such as pangolins and cat skins would be going out either to Vietnam or to China.” He adds that: “With the opening of borders and trade, things are getting worse globally. That means we have to work harder to stop it.”

The conservationist is under no illusion as to the difficulty of the task he and his colleagues face. Whilst trying to coax different species back to a thriving existence in the forests, they also have to do battle with hardened poachers and traders who are highly resentful of their interference. Going undercover, paying off informants and raiding restaurants is all part of the job for the head of Cambodia's Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team.

"We are known throughout Cambodia. We are feared by wildlife traders,” Marx reveals. “It would be foolish to say there is no risk. We're pissing people off and we are rescuing things like cobras, which often have their mouths stitched up and we have to unstitch them.” Why cobras? “They cut their throats to drink their blood with wine and then eat the flesh. People eat everything, from spiders and grasshoppers up.”

Along with heading Cambodia's Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team, Marx is also the director of a wildlife rescue service funded by Wildlife Alliance, a New York-based non-governmental organisation that specialises in protecting forests and wildlife.

Many of the animals that he and his colleagues deal with are recovered alive, and can often be returned to their natural habitat.

“Almost everything we confiscate, about 90 percent of it - provided it is in recent captivity and is fit and healthy, and of an age it can look after itself - is released back into a safe habitat,” Marx says. “If they cannot take care of themselves, we look after them at a rescue centre. This has included a baby elephant with a missing foot.”

With Angkor Wat being such a national and cultural focus for Cambodia, the hope is that bringing wildlife back to its surroundings will inspire some of the same emotional and spiritual attachment when it comes to the natural world too.

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