Spread over more than one million hectares in the southwest of Cambodia, Cardamom Mountains is the largest expanse of unbroken rainforest left in Southeast Asia. Covering more than 5% of the entire country, it’s a biodiversity hotspot with more than 16 different ecosystems, and is home to significant populations of rare wildlife, including 70 species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Despite its rich biodiversity, the Cardamoms is also one of the region’s most threatened forests. Satellite data shows that since 2001, Cambodia has lost more than 1.6 million hectares of forest and the Cardamoms is no exception: over the last few decades, ravenous logging, sand dredging and wildlife poaching have plagued this fragile ecological jewel.
Yet, a glimmer of hope is now burning brighter in the Cardamoms. Since 1993, about a third of the Cardamoms’ forests have been progressively declared protected areas, and in 2016, the Southern Cardamom National Park, a vast 1.8 million-hectare protected area that merged six existing national parks was established.
These national parks are also now home to a new breed of luxury tourism offerings, which are hoping to draw genuine attention to its conservation. This includes one of Asia’s most anticipated “glamping” safari sanctuaries, the extravagant yet ethical Shinta Mani Wild, which unzipped its plush canvas tents in late December 2018.
Wedged in a 162-hectare valley between the Cardamoms and two other national parks – Bokor and Kirirom – this spectacular property is the work of prolific Bangkok-based architect Bill Bensley. Its 15 luxury tents are dripping in the designer’s spectacular, Willy Wonka-esque flourishes, and enjoy extraordinary views, hovering high atop a series of waterfalls.
With rates starting at US$1,900 per night, one might expect a high dose of theatrics, and the resort delivers: after a three-hour drive from Phnom Penh, guests arrive at a gate lounge deep in the forest (arrival by chopper can be arranged), where they can then fly, Lara Croft-style, over the canopy into the resort’s Landing Bar on a 380m zip line. For the less adventurous, there is also an option to take a Jeep.
The menu here shines a spotlight on sustainably caught fish and wild edible plants, which guests can forage for in the forests with executive chef Kien Wagner. There’s also the chance to indulge in a spa treatment in the middle of a cascading waterfall or unwind with a glass of Cambodia-distilled Seekers gin and tonic at the Waterfall Restaurant, but to do only these would be missing the point of this place.
Bensley reportedly outbid a logging company to obtain the 99-year lease on the site to protect this previously undefended wildlife corridor. His associated Shinta Mani Foundation spearheads conservation and community outreach programs, and also guides guests on wildlife-watching hikes and kayaking trips with the resort’s live-in naturalists. Most impressively, they also work closely with environmental group Wildlife Alliance – who created their own tented camp in the region in 2017 – where guests can head out with their team of anti-poaching rangers to check camera traps.
While Shinta Mani Wild is clearly striving for grandeur and opulence, it has one overarching, noble mission in common with the other camps in this part of the world: to keep this striking rainforest standing.
Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru, The Maldives
Most people come to the Maldives for its mind-blowing diversity of marine life and its kaleidoscopic coral reefs that often resemble sculptural works of art. This sublime 90,000km2 landscape is made up of a chain of 26 atolls. One of these is the idyllic Baa Atoll, where you’ll find Hanifaru Bay, a sheltered lagoon considered to be the world’s largest manta ray feeding station. While there are other manta feeding sites in other atolls, Hanifaru is famous for having the highest concentration of reef mantas.
This is why Manta Trust, a conservation and research group founded and helmed by British marine biologist Guy Stevens, decided to base one of its biggest projects, the Maldivian Manta Ray Project (MMRP), at the Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru resort, located about 40 minutes away by speedboat.
The Four Seasons embraced the idea of setting up the marine discovery centre in 2010, which now runs a number of programmes for travellers keen to encounter manta rays: there’s a “manta on call” package – whenever a congregation of mantas is sighted, guests are whisked off by speedboat to snorkel with the creatures. Visitors can also opt to spend a day with Manta Trust researchers, collecting data and ID photos of the mantas.
The key time for the project’s biologists, divers and scientists is between May and November – if the tides and winds are right, the full moon can lure up to 100 of the gentle giants into Hanifaru’s shallow reefs.
One of the most tangible successes of the MMRP has been their work in developing an eco-tourism industry around manta rays, which directly led to the designation of Hanifaru Bay as a Marine Protected Area. They also lobbied hard in the designation of Baa Atoll as a Unesco biosphere reserve, and won in 2011.
Manta Trust continues to work tirelessly to improve the future for mantas. In late 2016, Stevens and his team headed to Johannesburg for the conference of CITES, a multilateral treaty that protects endangered plants and animals, and earned new protection for silky sharks, thresher sharks and devil rays. “It’s amazing. It’s been years of hard work to get to this point,” Stevens says.
Located on the largest island in Sabah’s 50km2 Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, a 15-minute boat ride from Kota Kinabalu, Gaya Island Resort (GIR) embodies a classic luxe beach idyll. Its 121 hillside villas are elegantly woven within the island’s dense foliage, surrounded by expanses of primary forest and serve up views of mangroves, the South China Sea and Mount Kinabalu. Inside, rooms offer pared-down simplicity, with plush teak platform beds and private terraces.
However, what sets the resort apart is its commitment to the environment. For starters, GIR has both a full-time marine biologist and a resident naturalist who devote their time toward protecting the natural realm and helping visitors better appreciate their surroundings. Marine biologist Scott Mayback, instrumental in setting up the resort’s marine conservation centre, leads initiatives such as the turtle rescue programme, which has seen them rehabilitate and release nine wild turtles injured by boat motors or caught in fishing nets. Other projects include monitoring the waters for illegal fishing and educating local schoolchildren on the fragility of the local waters.
“Currently, we are running a coral planting activity that is helping to regenerate our reef,” explains Mayback, on their ongoing scheme where visitors can get in the water and make a hands-on difference.
Justin Juhun, the resident naturalist, takes guests on kayak trips in the mangroves, a critical ecosystem on the island, and for nature walks through jungles where wild pigs, flying squirrels and the endangered proboscis monkeys reside. He spearheads clean-ups of the mangroves every two months to keep it a rich, healthy habitat for spawning fish, and together with his naturalist team, maintains the hiking trails on a daily basis, sometimes lugging heavy timber through the forests to replace worn handrails or bridges.
The team also scours the island’s rainforest for new records of biodiversity – recent discoveries include the red-spot duke butterfly and the grooved bent-toed gecko – and rehabilitates injured wildlife before releasing them back into the wild.
Located on Bremer Island, Northern Territory, Banubanu Beach Retreat was the brainchild of Helen Martin and Trevor Hosie. The couple first came across the privately owned Aboriginal island while operating fishing charters back in the early 2000s. After securing permission from the traditional Yolngu clan of East Arnhem Land, construction of the eco-resort began in 2005, using local materials such as driftwood and discarded fishing nets recovered from the island’s beaches. Martin shares, “When we initially applied to build Banubanu, the Indigenous community would only accept us on the understanding we were to create employment for future Yolngu generations to come – this has been our vision from the onset.”
Today, the retreat boasts a prime beachfront location on an island measuring 16km2. Without shops or roads, the resort’s distinct appeal is the offer of complete solitude. Outfitted with re-crafted timber and decked out with sea-coloured pastels, the luxury safari tents enjoy panoramic views over the Arafura Sea. Hosie declares, “With its undiluted Aboriginal culture, pristine landscape and unspoilt fishing, this is Australia’s last frontier.”
From inception, both Martin (an Arrernte Aboriginal woman from Alice Springs) and Hosie (an ex-mapper of the Northern Territory) have been committed to sustainable living and operate the retreat mainly by solar power and rainwater. They have contributed to conserving the local turtle population by requesting the Yolngu to halt hunting; the result being that hundreds of turtles are now nesting year-round throughout the island. The couple also employ Aboriginal people to run traditional crabbing and fishing trips, giving guests the invaluable opportunity to connect with the world’s oldest living culture.
Fourteen years on, the resort is thriving, with plans to build additional tents and a restaurant overlooking the bay – creating much-needed employment for the locally based Yolngu people.
Despite its intimidating name, the Aggressor Safari Lodge aims to tread lightly in its setting within a fragile, pristine ecosystem in a relatively undisturbed part of the world. The sprawling property, made up of well-appointed, air-conditioned tented chalets, opened in 2018 and is located right next door to one of the oldest (and largest) national parks in Sri Lanka.
Spread over an area of 1,300km2 along the northwestern coast of the island nation, around three hours’ drive from the main airport, Wilpattu National Park is home to a rich plethora of wildlife, including a healthy population of endangered leopards.
The park is also home to other threatened mammals such as the Asian elephant, sloth bear and Asian water buffalo. Because of its unique location in such close proximity to this important ecosystem, the lodge and the villages surrounding it are witness to constant man-animal conflict. However, in a bid to preserve the wildlife in the area, the lodge is now looking to engage locals and invest in conservation.
“Most of the villagers in this area are farmers and fisherman,” explains Marlon Buultjens, camp director at the Aggressor Safari Lodge.
“Sometimes, animals do destroy crops and fishing nets,” he says. “When they affect livelihoods in this way, it’s impractical to expect villagers not to trap or even kill the culprits. So we’ve spread the word that we will pay a reward if any animal [that trespasses] is brought to us alive,” says Buultjens, a native Sri Lankan.
The financial incentive is helping. So far, the lodge has saved hares, turtles, baby crocodiles, peacocks and numerous snakes. The animals are then released back into the wild. “We do also look to educate the locals about the animals they’ve brought us,” says Buultjens.
Words by Claire Knox (Cambodia, The Maldives); Sanjay Surana (Malaysia); Lynn Gail (Australia); Kamala Thiagarajan (Sri Lanka)
This article was originally published in the February 2019 issue of Silkwinds magazine