Friday, February 18, 2011

Phnom Penh Pachyderms

There aren’t a lot of elephants around Phnom Penh these days, in fact there is just the one sole and perhaps lonely Sambo, who gives rides around Wat Phnom and sleeps in an empty field in the Tonle Bassac area, behind the new Australian embassy. She was also a common sight on her way to and from work along Sisowath Quay for years, until some recent decision forced Sambo’s mahout to take her on a different route, along street 19 behind the royal palace. So that’s it as far as elephants go for a few hundred kilometers. There is of course the excellent Phnom Tamao wildlife refuge/zoo, about 70 km south of the capital in Takeo province, which houses quite a few pachyderms, but outside of there you won’t find many till you hit mountains and wilderness.

Back a century or so ago, things were quite different. Elephants were commonly used as draught animals or to transport goods or passengers. There were elephant taxis around Phnom Penh, and the palace maintained a large retinue of the beasts. These were used in ceremonies, and especially auspicious were the white elephants which the king would keep as his own personal sort of talisman. These animals are not really white, but have pink or light-colored patches that give them their name. The palace white elephants were often taken away as booty after wars with neighboring emergent states. The part of the Royal Palace that tourists exit from these days is where the elephant stables once stood. Along the front of the palace you can still see the small pavilions where elephants were posted up until the late 1960s. Now there are just ceremonial guards and empty spaces.

There are still some very limited numbers of wild elephants in Cambodia, but it’s very hard to say how many. In the north eastern highlands of Mondulkiri and Rattanakiri they are still used as beasts of burden or for tourist rides. Some also exist in the Cardamom mountains in Koh Kong and Kampong Speu and perhaps neighboring provinces, but there are no clear figures.

The decline in this animal’s numbers is due to many factors, but disappearing habitat must be the main one. The animal is generally held in reverence by local people and poaching would not seem to be a major problem, however snares set for other animals often cause major damage to their legs. Landmines do of course also take their toll. Obviously a huge, lumbering creature like this can easily die as a result of an injury to any limb because of incapacitation or infection.

During the Pol Pot regime, these animals lost their status and many were slaughtered, for meat and more importantly their bones which were exported to China. The details of just a couple of shipments of agricultural and wildlife products, taken from David Chandler’s well researched and documented book “The Pol Pot Regime” gives a small glimpse of the scale this trade perhaps had.

On 14 March (1977), the Chinese ship Heng Shan left for Whampoa with one thousand tons of Cambodian raw rubber and forty-four tons of betel, ten tons of lotus seeds, and other plant matter. But the Heng Shan also carried an extraordinary eighteen tons of deer horn, seven tons of pangolin scales, and two tons of tortoiseshell. One hesitates to compute the number of carcasses contributing to this cargo. Many more made up a 22 May shipment to the China National Native Products and Animal By-Products Import and Export Corporation. Dispatched to Whampoa on the Xindu were over six tons of monkey bone, 1.5 tons of elephant bone, “24,760 pieces” of dried gecko (apparently individual animals, weighing over half a ton in all), a ton of snake skins (mostly python), along with 145 kg of panther and tiger skins, 73 kg of black bear skins, and 128 kg of ring-mark lizard.

The Xindu also carried nearly 1000 tons of raw rubber, plus 160 tons of green beans, 130 tons of kapok, 65 tons of strychnine, 30 tons of white sesame, 20 tons of betel, 15 tons of pepper, 5 tons of malvanut, and 2 tons of frangipani flower.
One and a half tons of elephant bone in one shipment, perhaps the bones of more than ten animals. Obviously they had some use in traditional Chinese medicine, and perhaps that has something to do with the continuing decline in this incredible animal’s numbers. Otherwise it’s just that the forests which covered something like 70 percent of the country less than a century ago have in the main disappeared, a huge proportion just in the last 20 years. It’s difficult to see how such a large animal can survive alongside humans as less land becomes available for foraging and conflicts start to arise with farmers.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Boueng Japun

This place is almost unknown to many of the foreign residents who spend much of their time in the central districts, yet is bigger than a few of those districts put together. It stretches south from the dike at Street 271 for a long, long way, there’s little solid till you hit Takmao City. In recent reports about its development a figure of over 3000 hectares has been thrown about, and I don’t doubt it. The part that has been filled in so far is miniscule in comparison, perhaps 10 hectares or less. It’s the natural direction for the city to expand in anyway, and so long as provisions are made for drainage things could go well. The eminent architect Van Molyvann has argued that this is the direction the city should move in for many years. This has to be partly because of water resources, which become extremely scarce as on moves west of the city, and are almost non-existent when one reaches Kampong Speu province.
Boueng means lake in the Khmer language, but most of the area only appears to be a lake at the wettest times of the year. There is a permanently flooded part, but the rest is either swampy, or firmly above water for much of the year. Otherwise, every inch of it is divided into lots, which are used to grow various crops, water-hyacinths, morning-glory and other plants that are sold as pig-feed. These are plants which are also sold for human consumption, but not the ones from here. The reason for this is that the water is considered dirty, as the lake is fed by the some of the many polluted canals that flow south from the center city. Street 271 is the city’s southern dike, as well as being a ring-road, so much of the excess water that floods the city at times ends up being pumped over this barrier. Boueng Trabek Pumping Station is most easily noticed, it’s not far from where street 271 starts near the Monivong Bridge and the bottom of Monivong Boulevard.
On the city side of the dike is Boueng Trabek, it and the wide canals that stretch from it are particularly foul, with grey water and garbage floating on top. I’m not at all clear about what the pumping station does, but it certainly seems to filter out a lot of the floating detritus. It also seems to treat the water in some way, as it doesn’t smell so bad once it gets pushed over the dike, and it has a lot of foam which would seem to indicate the use of chemicals or detergents.
Besides the dirty water flowing into it, there is a fair amount of garbage strewn around the edges. Some of this comes from the local residents who throw a lot of trash straight out their windows, and the rest just blows down from the main road. What is quite surprising is that the lake seems to be quite clean once you get away from the perimeter. By the time you get a hundred meters from the road it’s difficult to notice any real pollution, it’s just the usual vast expanse of open ground you see in the central part of the country, extending as far as the eye can see. Eventually the water gets across this expanse, and flows into the Tonle Bassac River and onwards into the Mekong Delta and then out into the South China Sea.
What I find most interesting about this particular place is how much of a divide that exists there. Street 271 has many businesses along it, from small workshops to corporate headquarters, either way it’s a busy place and very much part of the city. Within a few meters one starts to find a very different place, where impoverished peasants try to eke out a living growing weeds. Paddling along minuscule canals in tiny boats, they exist in a completely different universe than most of the fat city’s inhabitants, just doing what they have been doing for hundreds of years.
Little is known publicly about the planned development here, and the nearby residents have not been informed about what is happening, although many are quite aware that they will probably soon have to leave, with little if any compensation.
The wetlands support a major amount of wildlife, from Egrets to Bee-Eaters and Barbets, but is hardly unique in this, similar areas exist all over the country. The main problem really is drainage, and this particular basin serves half or more of the capital, so unless proper channels are built the end results could be disastrous for the southern part of the city. The houses on the perimeter of the lake are stilted, but at the height of the monsoon the lower floors sometimes flood. It remains to be seen how much difference the newly filled-in part will make, but with less drainage it seems inevitable that it will result in higher water and more flooding than we have previously seen in the area. 

As an update (October 2011) it has been announced that the eastern part of the wetland which is being reclaimed is for a boulevard which will stretch between the southern end of Monivong Boulevard for seven kilometers to Takhmau. It will apparently be 60 meters wide. It has also been announced that the rest of the wetland will be preserved.   

The first picture was taken by Serge Corrieras in 1991, the following is what may be the same place in 2010, with a new pumping station built.
One stitched together image shows the sand filling in the east part of lake.
The picture of the woman who has been harvesting plants in the boat is from 2006, you can there isn't any sand in the background.
The yellow part on the map shows approximately how much of the wetland has been filled so far.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011