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Cambodia diary 21: the funding dilemma, and why wild doesn’t come free


In an ideal world I would spend time in the field with the research team counting vultures or setting camera traps to find out where leopards live. I would go on patrol with the enforcement teams and camp out at the outposts with only the forest for company. And I would spend time with our community staff working with villagers to set up small businesses based on forest products and exploring the possibilities for ecotourism with them.

I am incredibly fortunate in that I do get to do these things, but the reality is that this is only a very small part of what I do. A very big chunk of what I do is look for money. Finding the funds for our work.

Fieldwork in Cambodia © Mark Wright / WWFTwo forest rangers carry out important field work in Cambodia © Mark Wright / WWF

I imagine it’s universal that people want to live in a nice environment, we all want beautiful places to visit and the potential to see wild animals. Maybe there is the perception that, being ‘wild’, nature somehow looks after itself, so we can leave it to its own devices, free of charge. Whatever the reason, and despite this being something that everybody wants, finding funds to support the work is getting increasingly difficult.

Broadly speaking, for our work in the Eastern Plains, we need US$1 million dollars a year. This will pay for a staff of 70, maintain our small office in Sen Monorom, cover the motorbike running costs of the forest rangers (and on these tracks the motorbikes take a real hammering), all the training activities, start-up funds for village enterprises, the research programme and so on. I think this represents pretty good value for money because, at the end of it, what we get is 6,000 square kilometres of superb dry tropical forest with diverse and recovering wildlife populations.

The Cambodian forest © Mark Wright / WWFThe Cambodian forest © Mark Wright / WWF

The snag is that we need these funds year after year.

We have to compete for funds, and it is a very crowded market place. We get some of our funds from the government agencies such as the European Union or the American USAID. These often come with extremely exacting requirements that may or may not be relevant or helpful in our particular case but they do tend to be significant sums and so are definitely worth applying for. But as I say, competition is stiff for these funds and we are doing well if we have one successful application for every 10 submitted.

Sadly we, like other conservation groups, not to mention the other equally worthy causes such as health and education, have to ‘sell’ our product.

WWF is extremely lucky to have a huge and passionate membership base that contributes funds for WWF globally and these are absolutely critical for giving us some financial security going forward.

Banteng grazing © K Fletcher & Baylis / WWF-CambodiaBanteng grazing at the edge of a Cambodian forest © K. Fletcher & Baylis / WWF-Cambodia

For entirely understandable reasons many of these contributors have particular animals that they wish to support and this is also true of the philanthropists who bring significant funds to support the work of WWF. The Eastern Plains in Cambodia is a magnificent landscape but, for many donors, it is not as magnificent as others.

We have Asian elephants (but so do Nepal and India), we have probably lost our tigers (and in any case India has many more) and, of course, we don’t have any of the other great favourites such as rhino, orang-utan or gorilla. What we do have are banteng and gaur, both of which are types of wild cattle and, if we are being brutally honest, lack some of the exotic appeal of let’s say a jaguar or river dolphin.

Clouded leopard in Cambodia's Eastern Plains © GDANCP / WWF-CambodiaOne of the very few clouded leopard pictures taken by camera traps in Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary within northeastern Cambodia’s Eastern Plains Landscape © GDANCP / WWF-Cambodia

But I think that’s missing the point – or at least fails to celebrate what we do have.

The, certainly incomplete, inventory of species just for Mondulkiri Protected Forest lists 41 mammals (not including bats) and 87 bird species.

This landscape is home to clouded leopard and yellow-cheeked gibbon; to sambar deer and slow lorises; to pangolins and porcupines; to hornbills and cuckooshrikes; and to fish eagles and parakeets – and much, much more besides.

Perhaps more than anything else, the ‘product’ we have to sell is a promise.

This is a huge, essentially intact landscape that after years of civil war and political uncertainty has lost much of its wildlife. The species still exist but in low numbers. With the right support, these populations can be restored – nature will repair itself given time – to become again the place that Wharton in the 1950s compared in richness to the Serengeti. The Eastern Plains holds the promise of being, once again, somewhere truly extraordinary.

This is a vision of the future. It is an achievable vision – but one that does not come free. Looking for funds is not exciting or fun but it underpins everything we do – and such we will continue to write applications to make this vision a reality.

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