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Students at Royal University of Phnom Penh. Credit: Ally Catterick/FFI

Training Cambodia’s next conservation scientists

Posted on: 03.07.14 (Last edited) 3 July 2014

Nick Souter, Project Manager for Fauna & Flora International’s Cambodian University Capacity Building Project, co-manages the only conservation Masters degree course in the country.

Here we share an edited extract from a piece Nick wrote recently for Australian Quarterly, on why this project is so important.

Pol Pot’s murderous three year, eight month and twenty day regime destroyed Cambodia’s social, political and human landscape.

The Khmer Rouge shattered Cambodia’s education system and the destruction of Southeast Asia’s largest and most intact wilderness began with the regime’s defeat.

In 2005 Fauna & Flora International (FFI) joined with Cambodia’s oldest University, the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP) to help rebuild Cambodia’s education system and preserve its incredible natural diversity by instituting the Cambodia University Capacity Building Project.

A display in Phnom Penh’s Toul Sleng genocide museum – a former high school turned torture factory – quotes two Khmer Rouge slogans: “There are no diplomas, only diplomas one can visualise. If you wish to get a Baccalaureate, you have to get it at dams or canals,” and, “Study is not important. What’s important is work and revolution.”

Haunting images of murdered academics line the walls of Toul Sleng museum. Credit: Nick Souter/FFI

Haunting images of murdered academics line the walls of Toul Sleng museum. Credit: Nick Souter/FFI

After seizing power in 1975 the Khmer Rouge destroyed 90% of school buildings, burnt libraries and smashed almost all school laboratory equipment.

The remaining buildings were turned into prisons, stables and warehouses. The Royal University of Phnom Penh became a farm.

Between 75-90% of teachers and 97% of university students were killed. In 1975 there were 1,000 academics and intellectuals at the RUPP – only 87 survived the Khmer Rouge.

In the thirty years since the Khmer Rouge was deposed, a national education system has been developed. Unfortunately the quality of the education provided is generally poor, for example 22% of the adult population was still illiterate in 2008.

Today, Cambodia has 91 higher education institutions, 59% of them private.

These private universities specialise in management and business degrees. The education system does little to promote or develop critical thinking, and often uses outdated material.

For example my Khmer language teacher resolutely sticks to her 1968 text, which includes information such as to how to catch a train (there are no passenger services in Cambodia) and how to buy cigarettes at 1968 prices (I don’t smoke). I am looking forward to the “Going on a steam boat ride” lesson.

With this background the need for quality higher education – particularly in scientific disciplines – is great.

A biodiversity hotspot under threat

Biodiversity hotspots are the world’s most biologically rich, yet often most threatened areas. Cambodia lies at the heart of the Indo-Burma hotspot.
Its densely forested mountains, lowland forests and woodlands, its rivers and the great Tonle Sap lake support an incredible array of plants and animals, with many more yet to be discovered.

Cambodia has over 2,300 species of plants, of which more than 600 are used medicinally. Significant numbers of globally endangered animals such as Indochinese tigers, gibbons, wild cattle and deer, as well as the Mekong River’s Irrawaddy dolphins are found in Cambodia.

A banteng photographed in Siem Reap Province. Credit: Caleb Jones/Integrated Solutions Asia Cooperation/FFI.

Wild cattle (banteng) photographed in Siem Reap Province. Credit: Caleb Jones/Integrated Solutions Asia Cooperation/FFI.

Until very recently Cambodia was heavily forested. In 1970 it was estimated that more than 70% of the country was covered by primary rainforest, however large scale deforestation and degradation began after the defeat of the Khmer Rouge, as Cambodians started to rebuild their country.

Cambodia has the world’s fifth highest rate of deforestation, and – although there are still large areas of forest – much of what remains has been degraded.

The accelerating loss and degradation of Cambodia’s forests constitutes a global biodiversity crisis, and this is compounded by the small number of qualified Cambodian conservation and natural resource management professionals.

Secondary forest at Thmor Rung. Credit: Nick Souter/FFI

Secondary forest at Thmor Rung. Credit: Nick Souter/FFI

To address Cambodia’s education and biodiversity crisis, FFI and the RUPP established the University Capacity Building Project in 2005, and in 2011 set up the Centre for Biodiversity Conservation (CBC) to lead conservation activities at the university.

The CBC is a national hub for postgraduate education in conservation, biodiversity research, information dissemination and inter-agency collaboration.

In conjunction with the university’s biology department, the CBC runs a two-year Masters Degree in Biodiversity Conservation, which provides advanced scientific training in conservation and natural resource management.

It was the RUPP’s first MSc, and provides it graduates with the knowledge and skills required to manage Cambodia’s natural environment for long-term sustainability.

FFI and the RUPP (above) established the University Capacity Building Project in 2005. Credit: Ally Catterick/FFI

FFI and the RUPP (above) established the University Capacity Building Project in 2005. Credit: Ally Catterick/FFI

In its early years, teaching was carried out by academics from overseas, but today most of the teaching has been passed over to Cambodian nationals – including graduates from this Masters programme and other RUPP staff – clear evidence of the programme’s success in improving Cambodia’s academic capacity.

Almost all of the programme’s graduates are now employed in Cambodia’s conservation sector, working with the government, at the RUPP and for local and international NGOs.

The science of nature

The studies conducted by the students help address the country’s lack of biodiversity data, which is needed to sustainably manage Cambodia’s natural resources.

In 2008, the project launched the Cambodian Journal of Natural History, which is still Cambodia’s only peer reviewed scientific journal.

The journal provides a forum for publishing information on the basic biology, conservation and management of Cambodia’s unique plants and animals.

It also has an educational aspect, allowing Cambodian scientists to share their findings and improve their writing skills.

Cambodian Journal of Natural History (December 2013)

The Cambodian Journal of Natural History, Cambodia’s only peer reviewed scientific journal was launched by the CBC in 2008. Credit: FFI

The CBC has also published a number of books, field guides and best practice manuals, which are indispensable for both biologists and wildlife enthusiasts.

Our next publication will focus on best practice for environmentally-sensitive community development, and will help civil society NGOs to combine education with conservation.

We are also looking at making some of our courses available to environmental professionals who cannot afford the time to undertake the full MSc, providing targeted training to those who will put their new knowledge to immediate use.

Natural history collections play an important role in conservation. Unfortunately the majority of plant and animal specimens collected from Cambodia are held in overseas institutions, making it difficult for Cambodians to access them.

To redress this, in 2007 the University Capacity Building Project established Cambodia’s only working Zoological Museum at the RUPP to build collections of lesser known and small bodied animals such as snakes, lizards, frogs, small birds, bats, butterflies and zooplankton. Whilst developing the museum’s collection, a number of new species discoveries and new country records have been made, and long lost species rediscovered.

Cambodia’s only working Zoological Museum is at the RUPP and was created by the project. Credit: Ally Catterick/FFI

Cambodia’s only working Zoological Museum is at the RUPP and was created by the project. Credit: Ally Catterick/FFI

At the same time the National Herbarium of Cambodia was established in collaboration with the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris.

The National Herbarium is supported by the CBC and has received repatriated specimens from Paris (the oldest from 1865 collected during the earliest days of French colonisation).

The National Herbarium of Cambodia is also supported by the CBC. Credit: Ally Catterick/FFI

The National Herbarium of Cambodia is also supported by the CBC. Credit: Ally Catterick/FFI

The CBC also employs promising MSc graduates and RUPP staff as conservation research officers, allowing us to build Cambodia’s biodiversity knowledge base and answer important conservation questions.

The road ahead

Whilst considerable advances have been made in both education and conservation since the University Capacity Building Project was established in 2005, considerable challenges remain – the biggest of which is funding.

For the nine years of its life the project has been developed using relatively short term funding (up to three years) from a range of donors.

However this philanthropic donor model cannot be relied upon forever, as donors are attracted to the new; fashions change; and countries gain and fall out of favour.

Whilst the Cambodian economy continues to grow at around 7% a year, the government budget still remains small, so national capacity to fund education and conservation is limited.

We will continue to build the CBC, improve the quality of the its teaching and research by working with foreign academics –not in their earlier driving role, but as mentors for our early career Cambodian conservationists.

The rapid rate of deforestation and the emerging threat posed by hydropower development compounds the need for many more Cambodians to be trained in conservation and natural resource management.

The University Capacity Building Project will continue to produce highly qualified MSc in Biodiversity Conservation graduates who can lead Cambodia towards a sustainable future.

Written by
Nick Souter

Nick Souter is the Project Manager of Fauna & Flora International’s Cambodia University Capacity Building Project. Located at the Royal University of Phnom Penh the project delivers Cambodia’s only Masters degree in Conservation; publishes the Cambodian Journal of Natural History, occasional natural history guides and best practice manuals; undertakes conservation research and manages an animal museum. Nick has a diverse background in conservation biology which ranges from developing methods for assessing floodplain tree condition, to conducting aerial surveys of feral camels in the deserts of central Australia. He has previously worked as the Senior Ecologist for the River Murray in the South Australian Government, as a private consultant and as a university lecturer. For his PhD, Nick examined the habitat requirements of the Endangered pygmy bluetongue lizard in South Australia. Nick has wide ranging interests in conservation biology but has recently focussed on the delivery of environmental flows and river restoration.

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