As you approach Beng Per Wildlife Sanctuary, five hours north of Phnom Penh, it’s difficult to tell exactly where the park begins. There is no audience of trees to greet you, no sign to welcome you. In many areas, there are no trees at all, the land more reminiscent of parched African savannah than Southeast Asian rainforest. Where trees do appear, they stand in uniform rows, with vessels taped to their trunks — archetypal features of rubber plantations.
While each area of terrain differs from the other, they typify the decimation of protected forest that’s ravaged the once great Beng Per for more than a decade. Vigilante groups and land defenders are going against the grain and doing what they can to protect the jungle, but they’re exceptional cases in a wider tale of loss. When first established in 1993, the park covered 2,425 square kilometers (940 square miles), nearly all of it forest and much of it old growth. By 2000, 1,990 square kilometers (770 square miles) of forest remained, of which more than half — 1,020 square kilometers (390 square miles) — was lost between 2001 and 2018, with the heaviest damage occurring from 2010 onward.