Han Sakhan has been away from home for more than a week now. He is unwilling to leave the forests, concerned that there will be one less person to protect it.
He knows unwanted visitors are here every day.
Poachers and illegal loggers are rampant, and form part of wildlife crime networks in the region that are leaving an insidious trail of destruction in the largest intact dry and mixed forests of the Greater Mekong region, known as the Eastern Plains Landscape.
Han is the Deputy Director of Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary, one of two critically important protected areas within Cambodia’s Mondulkiri province, the heart of the Eastern Plains. Han and his team of forest rangers are under growing pressure to defend these protected forests.
Rangers usually patrol in small groups of about three to five.
With over 225,000 hectares of forests to watch over in the wildlife sanctuary, and increasing numbers of armed poachers and loggers encroaching, they are severely outnumbered and out-resourced.
Knowing these seemingly unsurmountable challenges, however, does not stop the rangers from doing their work for the sake of the local communities and wildlife who rely on it.
Known as the ‘Serengeti of Asia’ back in the fifites, the Eastern Plains Landscape is famous for spectacular wildlife, including tigers, leopards, elephants and the ever elusive kouprey (forest ox).
Once a historical stronghold for wild tigers, one hasn't been seen here since 2007.
However, the Government of Cambodia has an ambitious plan to reintroduce tigers to the Eastern Plains by 2022, making the work of Han Sakhan even more critical.
Today, it remains home to the world’s largest banteng (wild cattle) population, the precious Eld’s deer, Asian elephants, and many other endangered species.
And, for most days of the year, it is home to the rangers who work to protect these endangered animals and their wild habitats. Spending most of their time in the forests, nearly half of all rangers in Asia see their families for less than five days each month.
The brotherhood among the rangers runs strong.
They are keenly aware that, like themselves, each ranger shares a similar story of having left the comfort of their homes and their families to be here in the forests.
For Han, it is his wife and three boys that he leaves behind.
An average patrol lasts for a week, sometimes more, during which the network connection in these remote areas is at best erratic and usually non-existent. Nevertheless, Han tries to make brief calls to his family whenever he can.
On the rare occasion that his call goes through, Han’s family is always ready at the receiving end with the same questions:
Why do you leave for such a long time? How is your health there? Is there enough food in the forests? We miss you…
Han’s oldest son works as a lawyer while his second child is already 17 years old. But his youngest son is just three years old and he is the one who is most disappointed every time Han leaves home for the forests.
Han says: “My wish is simple ‒ to fulfil my duties as a father and a ranger well. My wife gave me her full support to be a ranger even before we decided to start a family. But it gets harder to stay away from home for so long every time I hear my youngest’s voice on the phone.”
For every time Han makes an arrest, he stays longer in the forests for a follow-up at the ranger station. There is no easy way to explain to his son why the ‘reward’ for a job well done is, ironically, staying away from his family for an even longer time.
It is harder yet to explain the sinister threats he faces in the forests and why he chooses to go back all the time.
The Mondulkiri province is a high-risk area for malaria.
One bite from a disease-carrying mosquito or a poisonous snake can prove fatal, when the closest medical facility is hours away by foot.
Most wildlife rangers do not have adequate state-provided insurance that covers health, accidents and life policies. When they get sick, injured or if they are killed in the line of duty, they and their families are not financially protected.
Families who rely on them as breadwinners often become vulnerable.
However, for Han and his team, this worry is only secondary. “The biggest problem for rangers is poachers and loggers as they are a bigger group than us,” he said.
At the Vietnamese border where armed poachers usually lurk, the rangers know there is a risk that violence will be used against them.
“But I promised my family I will make them happy. If I can protect our wildlife and forests for future generations, it will be good for my sons and for Cambodia.”
And Han is good at his job.
He has the honour of being the first ranger to arrest elephant poachers in Cambodia and many other arrests have since been made under his lead.
These successes have made Han feel hopeful about the future.
After years of effort in the forests, he feels that there is a finally chance for Cambodia to rebuild its reputation for rare wildlife and beautiful landscapes ‒ although he is concerned about the need for more funding to keep rangers on the ground.
During the dry season this year, he was invited to be a local trainer alongside South African experts in the first series of ranger trainings, organized by WWF, aimed at strengthening enforcement in Cambodia.
Han was eager to pass on the expertise and experience he has gained over the years. And, as he proudly surveyed the 60+ gathering of rangers, he knew that the mix of new recruits and seasoned rangers would soon form strong bonds.
While Han is proud of his fellow rangers and prefers working on the frontlines himself, he wishes his youngest son will one day combat illegal poaching by becoming a lawyer.
“It is important to have lawyers who can uphold justice for Cambodia’s wildlife and protect our natural resources for the people. But I can’t make him want something. Some day he will have to make his own decision. And I hope he, like me, chooses to protect these forests in his own way.”