Story co-written by Justine Shanti Alexander and Alice Laguardia.

Lying in our hammocks floating between trees, the sun rays slowly awakened our senses. As we look up to the sky, the emerald canopy shines above dancing to the morning breeze. The sounds of bamboo shoots rustling in a primordial melody. Our skins soon accumulate the radiant heat and we know it’s time to leave our cocoon of natural pleasures.

We have travelled to Cambodia’s most remote area, Mondulkiri Protected Forest (4,000 km2), to help assess the status of one of the last leopard populations of Southeast Asia. This landscape was once a biodiversity refuge for a multitude of endangered species amongst its matrix of closed evergreen and open deciduous forests – and was even called the ‘Serengeti of Asia’ in the 1960s.  It’s part of a 13,000 km2 protected-area complex stretching across east-central Cambodia and western Vietnam. Many species have held on the longest here, compared to other areas of Southeast Asia, because of its low human population, remoteness, and, until recently, inaccessibility (paved roads reached Mondulkiri Protected Forest only in 2015).

The majestic tiger until recently ruled this ecosystem, thriving off a luxurious buffet, a healthy community of ungulates: banteng, gaur, Eld’s deer, Samber, wild water buffalo, wild pig, and muntjack.  Another prey species, the hefty and mysterious kouprey, had however already became extinct by the 1980s, due to over hunting by humans. The tiger soon followed a similar fate, and by 2007 the last evidence of their presence was recorded. Conservation biologists captured its last photo using camera traps (remotely triggered cameras) and documented the tigers’ extinction from Cambodia. Our concerns is now for the leopards, will they be next? As with several other species, Mondulkiri is the last refuge for leopards in all of Indochina, so if they disappear here, they’ll be extinct in the entire region.

Poaching and illegal logging are poisoning Mondulkiri. Illegal roads, a consequence of intense human activity, cut deep through the thick vegetation, giving access to the very core of the protected forest. Heavy machinery alongside opportunistic individuals, hungrily search, cut down and drag away the remaining luxury wood. Perforating holes are left behind in the sea of trees. These scars go deeper, as people simultaneously blanket snare and actively hunt using guns and dogs, emptying this pristine forest. Local and international NGOs are collaborating with the Cambodian Forestry Administration, to safeguard this precious landscape. Ranger stations were built but sporadic patrols struggle to enforce the law, challenged by corruption.

Our task this dry season of 2016 is to determine whether a viable population of leopards remain, as part of  a broader program led by Dr. Jan Kamler from Panthera ( – a conservation organization for large cats- to monitor and help conserve the remaining population of leopards throughout Southeast Asia. We set out early in the morning with our motorbikes using those same abused roads. We set up camera traps that will hopefully capture all the leopards, including Keiko, the large dominant male last detected in 2014. On our way we do observe the pug marks and scats of other smaller carnivore species, including leopard cat, jungle cat, civets and jackals.

Mondulkiri Protected Forest is one of the last great wildernesses in Asia and the prime location for tiger reintroduction.

12° 56′ 10.25″ N, 107° 18′ 18.24″ E

We are accompanied by the explosive barking of muntjack and the singing chorus of white-crested laughingthrush, rufous treepie and sooty-headed bulbul. High above circling in the sky or pearched alongside a trapeang (waterwhole), lesser adjutants, crested serpent eagles and woolly-necked storks.  However leopards are nowhere to be found with only one crumbled leopard scat collected. Our concern grows, maybe the leopards are already wiped out. What was evidently pervasive was the number of feral and domestic dogs, potential hosts for deadly disease for wildlife. The sounds of engines and motorbikes echoed day and night within the forest. Fires blared continuously across the grasslands. Black ashes and human destruction left us with a feeling of hopelessness.

Our concern grows, maybe the leopards are already wiped out.

One evening, in the darkness of the night, we take a preliminary look at our camera trap pictures. With the generator roaring in the background we quickly skim through the endless photos of the 45 camera trap sites and it is clear that some species are missing. The dholes (Asiatic wild dogs) appear to be gone. Finally our elusive and beautifully spotted big cat makes a camera trap appearance, a female leopard calmly pacing along a beaten road. Proving that she has so far survived the human encroachment, we name her “Hope”. Another few females and a male were also detected, scattered at a low density across the protected forest.

Then the hooting of a spotted wood owl calls us back to our hammocks and gently lulls us into reverie. Despite Mondulkiri’s conservation challenges we trust that if others could experience the spirit of this realm the protection of the big cats would be in our reach. In the stillness of the night we dream of a resilient forest.