10 years of success for Cambodian conservation science

“The Centre for Biodiversity Conservation (CBC) is the only programme in Cambodia that provides a Masters of Biodiversity Conservation – it is the best because students can learn theory, join field trips and work with international university students.”

These are the words of 27 year old Ms Thaung Ret (a research officer with FFI), who graduated on 19 May 2015 from the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP) in Cambodia with a Masters of Science (MSc) in Biodiversity Conservation, which is based at the CBC.

To address Cambodia’s education and biodiversity crisis, Fauna & Flora International (FFI) and RUPP established the University Capacity Building Project in 2005, and in 2011 set up the CBC to lead conservation activities at the university. 2015 celebrates 10 years of success for the project!

2015 CBC graduates

2015 CBC graduates (from left) Mr Ngin Kamsan, Mr Ty Srun, Ms Thaung Ret (FFI/CBC), Ms Hong Lina, Ms Leng Phalla (FFI), FFI CBC Project Manager Dr Nick Souter, Dr Ith Saveng (2007 graduate & lecturer), Mr Yav Net, Ms Chhuon Socheata (FFI), Ms Thi Sothearen (FFI/CBC), Mr Poeuv Narith & Mr Hul Vibol. Absent: Mr. Sum Phearun. Credit FFI.

Scholarship winner Ret was one of 11 CBC MSc students who graduated last month, joining a network of more than 100 Cambodian biodiversity conservation alumni. Almost all of the programme’s graduates are now employed in Cambodia’s conservation sector, working with the government, at the university and for local and international NGOs. An increasing number of graduates are also taking advantage of the programme’s extensive international links to continue their careers overseas.

FFI’s CBC Project Manager Dr Nick Souter said all the 2015 graduates now had jobs – including eight in conservation at Birdlife International, FFI, and Wildlife Conservation Society.

“That eight of the 11 graduates are already employed in conservation is testament to the value of the degree, which is highly valued in the conservation sector and is arguably Cambodia’s highest quality Masters,” he said.

The CBC was established to counter decades of under-investment in the education sector which had left the field of biodiversity conservation in Cambodia with a shortage of trained biologists and reliable biodiversity data. The MSc in Biodiversity Conservation was established to address the urgent need for qualified conservationists to guide Cambodia towards sustainable development, address existing knowledge gaps, and uphold the nation’s commitments to conserving its biodiversity.

Prime Minister of the Royal Government of Cambodia

Prime Minister of the Royal Government of Cambodia, Samdech Hun Sen congratulates Ms Thi Sothearen, as the dux of the 2015 CBC graduates. Credit: Nick Souter/FFI.

The CBC meets a critical need in Cambodia, acting as a national hub for postgraduate education in conservation, biodiversity research, information dissemination and inter-agency collaboration.

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

Run in conjunction with the RUPP’s Biology Department, the programme provides advanced scientific training in conservation and natural resource management.

The students’ research topics have varied greatly over the years, with many focusing sustainable development and the relationships between people and nature. Marine conservation is another area that is increasingly attracting the attention of students, including Ret.

Ret and fellow 2015 graduates and FFI colleagues, Ms Chhuon Socheata and Ms Thi Sothearen, were awarded scholarships through USAID’s Cambodia HARVEST programme, which aims to help address rural vulnerability and ecosystem stability. Sothearen was dux of the 2015 CBC graduating class.

2015 CBC graduate Ms Thi Sothearen (CBC) and FFI CBC Project Manager Dr Nick Souter.

2015 CBC graduate Ms Thi Sothearen (CBC) and FFI CBC Project Manager Dr Nick Souter. Sothearen was awarded a certificate for receiving the highest score from the 2015 CBC graduating class. Credit: Pheng Sokline/FFI.

For Ret, the best parts of her CBC experience were meeting classmates who shared similar interests in nature and the opportunity to conduct research on her own thesis.

“I also gained skills to coordinate work with local people and I feel more independent and confident as a researcher – I have a broader knowledge of science to work with biodiversity research and environmental management,” she said.

The CBC is continuing to look to the future, training more Cambodian conservationists and revising course content to provide the skills required to manage the pressure that Cambodia’s rapid development is placing on its natural resources.