Island to Island: Expedition FXCambodia 2015

Katya Zaki


In just six weeks, and with what seems like a little under a year’s worth of preparation and planning, we will embark on a project that in essence will help to protect and build on the limited biodiversity research on the remote islands of Kep; off the south coast of Cambodia.

In spite of the growing presence of conservation thinking, huge gaps in biodiversity knowledge remain across the region investigated. Little is known about the islands ecosystems. Do they change over time? Is the encroachment of tourism affecting the biodiversity? If so, what is the best route for protection?  To tackle these questions we spent the last year re-establishing a team for support, both within the UK and Cambodia. Meetings were held and questions honed.

Increasing tourism in Cambodia demonstrates the need to re-establish links with local organisations to advise development companies on how to sustainably develop the islands. Long term monitoring of the biodiversity will also allow critical information to reach local decision makers and will help to influence further ecological development.

Our time in Cambodia will be spent researching the unique wildlife that the area boasts. We will be located in the Kep province, near the Southern border of Vietnam, and shall be conducting terrestrial biodiversity surveys; particularly focusing of Avifauna (Birds), Lepidoptera (Butterflies and Moths), Hereptiles (Reptiles and Amphibians), Pitcher plants, and Orchids.  Monsoon season will essentially mean we can look forward to leeches, tropical storms and an awful lot of mud.

Our key scientific objective is to create a species list and compile a report of our findings that can be used by academics and conservationists alike in Cambodia.  We will be able to create a better understanding of the diversity of life, using comparative species lists from previous years.  Our data can be then used as a baseline for monitoring the region in the long term. Long term monitoring is one of the key methods of conservation, particularly when assessing the effects of tourism.

What make our time out there even more important is the lack of research that has been undertaken in that province, largely due to the Khmer Rouge Rule which limited peoples access to Cambodia. Alongside the increasing threat of tourism, documenting the diversity has become ever more essential. By working with students from the University of Agriculture based in Phon Phen we hope to learn some new skills and surveying techniques, as well as sharing any knowledge we may have.

As a team of eight students; equally recruited from the University of Falmouth and the University of Exeter, one of the most challenging but rewarding aspects of our project is that it is entirely student led. This essentially means the drive to ensure success falls on our shoulders alone.

Our first challenge will be funding. This obstacle was at the forefront of our minds on the drive up to London. We had been lucky enough to have been invited to an interview to gain financial support from the Royal Geographic Society (RGS) (with IBG); the UK’s professional body for geography and geographical sciences. This was a huge step in making our plans a reality and we were all feeling the pressure as we attempted to memorise our pitch to the panel. The success of securing funding from the RGS, Les Halpin Expedition Fund and University of Exeter Scientific Expedition Fund has put us in high spirits just weeks before we set out.

Our reservations are also somewhat calmed due to the invaluable advice we have access to; the security that whatever mistakes we make, will hopefully help our successors in future years. Cambodia is one of the original locations for FXpedition discovery. Expedition Samloem, led by former Fxpedition Director Ben Toulsan, paving the foundations for our work. Project Kep, an expedition set to expand the range of research to the Kep Islands. It is these small groups of islands where we hope to secure long-term conservation led monitoring. The support of previous teams, the knowledge we have gained from funding boards, and the advice given by our patron the infamous wildlife explorer and presenter Steve Backshall will with any luck be proven to be helpful in the field.

After many months of preparation, we’re itching to get out to the islands to explore these terrestrial environments that few will ever experience and few endemic species inhabit. It is difficult to evoke awareness, finding reasons to relate to conservation issues around the world. Documentation is key; to share the remote places, the silences, the hunger, the discomfort, the character-building struggle, the anticipation of sublime highs or concerns about being able to cope with the lows, the tears and the laughter.

Expedition Leader: Katya-Rose Zaki

FXCambodia Team: Ellen Whitby, Tom Day, Sean Young, Matt Holland, Martin Berwick, Henry Traynor and Belle Horton