During a trip to Koh Rong, writer Erin Hale discovered a swathe of new projects to protect the archipelagos’ priceless environment.

While Koh Rong and its sister Koh Rong Samleon are best known as relaxing beach destinations, it is hoped by some that it will rise to fame for its marine conservation after a new project was launched in June to protect the waters around the 16-island Koh Rong archipelago.

If all goes well, it could usher in the country’s first marine natural park. However, environmental NGOs and their supporters face challenges from the fishing industry to business interests. They will also have to deal with all the complexities that come with the latest species to arrive on Koh Rong: humans.

Unlike other islands in Cambodia, the archipelago was human-free until 2000, when villages were established alongside the brand new tourism industry catering primarily to foreign backpackers.

The industry took off significantly in 2011, according to Paddy Robinson, a long-term resident and manager of Monkey Island guesthouse, thanks to promotion by the Koh Rong Dive Centre. The popularity of Koh Rong means more tourists can appreciate Cambodia’s beaches and waters, but increased visitors and residents have also brought negative side effects, including overfishing, deforestation, littering, and pollution from improper waste management.

Fauna & Flora International (FFI) and Cambodia’s Fishery Administration aim to undo some of this damage with a 405 square kilometre marine protected area around the main island.

The project will preserve and study aquatic habitats, taking incoral reefs, seagrass beds and mangrove forests, while working with local communities to fish sustainability, says Kate West, FFI coast and marine project manager.

Besides setting boundaries for protected (no-fish) areas and multiple use zones, for diving and other recreation, the project also employs locals fishers to patrol the waters around Koh Rong to stop illegal fishing. West says approximately 20 patrols take place each month around the protected zone. 

The new marine reserve complements a similar initiative by luxury hotel Song Saa Private Island, which sits on two tiny islands off the northeast coast of Koh Rong. Song Saa created its own marine reserve in 2008 to protect the waters around the luxury hotel and, with the establishment of the Song Sea Foundation in 2013, now runs a tropical marine conservation programme.

Wayne McCallum, foundation executive director, says “notable improvements” have been seen in the condition of the coral, mangrove and sea-grass ecosystems across the area where the foundation works.

Under the programme, crucial data has also been collected on marine habitats. In October, foundation members spotted a whale shark. 

However, Koh Rong island faces a giant unknown its future. The Royal Group, Cambodia’s largest conglomerate, was granted a 99-year land concession in 2008 to develop the island and its first project has stumbled out of the gate.

The group’s planned $40 million Royal Sands Koh Rong Resort on the island’s Long Beach has seen a number of delays since it broke ground in December 2015, mainly due to opposition from local government leaders.

Whether the 148-room project is completed as planned or a smaller version is built, it will still bring more traffic to the island and likely problems associated with large-scale construction like waste runoff, noise pollution, and disposal of construction materials.

Besides participating in marine preservation efforts, Steven Cannon, of Everest Partners Limited, which developed Sol Beach Resort on Koh Rong Samleon, says there are many small steps that can be taken to preserve the environment and the islands’ beauty.

These include installing a proper waste water management system and building away from the shoreline..

“Black plastic septic tanks with proper secondary overflow chambers are expensive, but the ecological damage they help avoid is priceless. It is regretful that proper waste treatment systems are not installed in order to minimise costs in the name of (precarious) short term profits,” he says.

“Not only are long term ecological impacts a critical priority, but when inadequate waste water systems are present where water supplies are only surface or shallow subsurface it creates a real short term health risk to tourists.”

With renewed interest in protecting the Koh Rong archipelago’s marine environment, it is hoped more businesses will follow suit with their own projects.

The marine protected area will help preserve the islands’ waters, but growing tourist interest in Koh Rong means conservation efforts are essential if visitors are to enjoy the islands’ beauty.