June 2016

The RRF has awarded $29,990 to tackle raging forest fires threatening the extraordinarily high biodiversity within the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve, a site which contains the largest fresh water lake in Southeast Asia.

The Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve is described as ‘the beating heart at the centre of Cambodia’ by RRF grantee, Conservation International. The huge freshwater lake at the centre of the site floods annually increasing in area by approximately 10,000km2. This annual process is integral to one of Cambodia’s most important fisheries and is crucial in the migration and breeding habits of countless fish species.

As might be expected the flooded forest also supports rich terrestrial biodiversity. The centre of this vast protected area supports a colony of over 100,000 water birds; making it the largest in Southeast Asia. It is also an important breeding site for many large waders, including the Greater Adjurant. The Tonle Sap is the site of the largest breeding colony in the world of this Endangered species.

The 2016-17 El Nino made the Tonle Sap flooded forest extremely vulnerable to fire; the peak water level in the Tonle Sap Lake was almost three meters lower than in normal years. Therefore, large areas of forest and scrubland that normally flood, received no water. The entire floodplain has remained dry from early April 2016, an unprecedented situation. To add fuel for the fire, the early wet-season rains in April failed to arrive and meteorologists are predicting even more sporadic weather patterns, which are likely to delay the hoped for rains even further. These factors create ideal conditions for fire, which are already burning nearby.

Satellite images clearly show that the Tonle Sap Lake is now fringed by a ring of fire, which initially began as isolated fires in April. Without rain, there is nothing to check the spread of the forest fires and unlike the seasonally dry-forest of Cambodia’s north and east, the Tonle Sap flooded forest is not adapted to withstand fire. When the RRF received the application from Conservation International, forest fires were destroying at least 10 hectares of forest per day, threatening the sites significant water bird colonies for which the lake is famous.

Funds from the RRF are to be used to tackle the fires through two methods; extinguishing existing fires and preventing further flare-ups. The grant contributed to the purchase vital fire-fighting equipment including water pumps and transport which will be used to tackle the raging fires that are still burning. In addition, funds will be used to construct vital fire breaks around core areas containing the highest biodiversity and track fires via a satellite monitoring system.

The RRF is committed to protecting the world’s most irreplaceable natural habitats and species. Despite not being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve contains globally significant diversity; having been gazetted as both a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and a Ramsar site. These areas are also vital for the economy of Cambodia, since the Tonle Sap’s fisheries provide 70% of the protein consumed within the country. The Rapid Response Facility is a partnership between UNESCO and Fauna & Flora International dedicated to supporting the world’s natural heritage in times of crisis.

RRF answers call to avert wildfire disaster in Cambodia