Since 2013, Song Saa Foundation has been tirelessly working to protect Koh Rong archipelago’s fragile coastal habitats while providing a vital lifeline to the communities that call the islands home.
Laughter erupts as a group of children leap from a small boat into the sea. Despite living on the remote island of Koh Rong – predominantly home to fishermen – for many, this is the first time they have been introduced to the vibrant marine life they live alongside.
Under the guidance of an instructor, the kids nervously dip their heads below the translucent waters. All that remains on the surface is the occasional splash of a flipper and five snorkels piercing the shallow stretch of the Gulf of Thailand.
Minutes later they emerge and burst into excited chatter. They vividly relay the vibrant underwater world they have just witnessed before diving down to discover more.
The children are just a handful of the hundreds involved in Song Saa Foundation’s
(SSF) innovative Sea Turtle programme. Forming part of the Foundation’s series of ongoing educational activities, the initiative sees youngsters from villages across Koh Rong archipelago snorkel above the colourful coral reefs that pepper the waters.
During their underwater adventure, teachers point out the rainbow of fish that dart around them –yellowback fusiliers, ember parrotfish, sergeant majorfish, peacock groupers, longfinned batfish – and the delicate chain of coral reefs that protect the archipelago’s smattering of seven islands.
The group then returns to the purpose-built Song Saa Sala in Prek Svay village. Here, they are encouraged to get creative and draw the fish seen as they learn more about the importance of conserving this fragile ecosystem.
“This was my first time snorkelling and seeing all the different fish,” says 14-year-old Kea Chaiya. “I really enjoyed myself and am happy I learned a lot of things. I’d like to do it again if I have the chance.”
Preserving Marine Life for the Future
The Sea Turtle initiative forms part of SFF’s overarching aim to protect and preserve the archipelago’s fragile eco-system on and offshore. It also runs a series of projects to empower the communities that call the islands home.
Since launching in 2013, SFF has worked tirelessly to conserve Koh Rong archipelago’s varying environments and improve the welfare of its communities. A milestone achievement saw SFF join forces with the Fisheries Administration, Fauna & Flora International (FFI) and other partners to create the country’s first large-scale marine protected area.
According to FFI, between 60 and 80 percent of communities in the archipelago are involved in fishing and related activities. This has led to overfishing, depletion of fish stock and damage to the area’s unique biodiversity.
To safeguard the precious coastal habitats, in 2018 Koh Rong National Marine Park was established. Spanning 524km2, the park is home to an intricate web of coral reefs, seagrass and mangroves that offer shelter to endangered sea turtles, seahorses, dugongs and a wealth of other rare marine life.
As part of SFF’s work, a community liaison officer works with fishermen and villagers to educate them on the importance of conservation and adhering to the park’s rules. A coral restoration programme led by SSF is also helping breathe new life into the archipelago’s treasured ecosystem.
“Through SSF’s various conservation and educational programmes, we have been able to bring back and restore a lot of marine life,” says Song Saa Private Island’s general manager, Donald Wong.
“Fishing plays a major part in local livelihoods, so we are reinvesting in their future by protecting this marine life, bringing back fish reserves and ultimately restoring the livelihoods of many.”
Helping Communities Flourish
In addition to its marine-based efforts, SSF works closely with the islands’ often isolated communities. A lack of basic infrastructure to manage solid waste throughout the archipelago has led to serious health issues for villagers while also polluting marine biodiversity.
To help ease the issue, SSF worked with villagers at Prek Svay – where some of the resort’s staff live with their families – to create a solid waste management system, deliver educational recycling and waste workshops, and introduce composting systems to boost crop yields. This has been rolled out in a further three villages across the archipelago.
In partnership with ADB and Plan International, SFF is also helping improve the livelihoods of under-privileged communities by giving them access to clean water. Life-saving rainwater harvesting facilities are being built in villages and water filters dished out.
“At Song Saa, we strongly believe in giving back to local communities,” says Donald. “A stay here is all about that, it’s not just about being at a luxury resort. You are directly contributing to the ethos of Song Saa, and the ethical charter of conservation and supporting locals.”
Figures from International Medical Relief (IMF) reveal 75 percent of the archipelago’s residents are malnourished. In response to this, coupled with the lack of access to basic medical facilities, SSF teamed up with IMF to spearhead a series of medical missions. Each year, 40 US-based doctors land in Cambodia equipped with US$1 million in medical supplies to deliver much-needed healthcare to islanders.
“IMF bring a group of internationals doctors to run health clinics in remote villages on the islands,” adds Donald. “They treat hundreds of patients who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to get to the mainland for even basic healthcare.”
Another innovative arm of SFF is Library of Hope, which tackles literacy issues that dog many of the area’s young. The floating library sails around the archipelago to deliver school books, pens and other essential educational tools to ill-equipped village schools.
Play Your Part
As a Hong Kong-registered non-governmental organisation (NGO) and charity, SFF relies heavily on funding to carry out its crucial work. Now more than ever, it needs the support of past, present and future guests to ensure this essential work continues.
Donations can be made through SFF’s website, with one-off and monthly options available. Alternatively, there are opportunities to become an SSF partner. Future guests can opt to take part in the Pack for Purpose programme and bring school supplies and other goods to the resort. These will be handed out in villages across the islands.
There is also the chance to leave an ever-lasting footprint on this slice of natural paradise. Guests can help keep the island’s tropical jungle alive while supporting SFF and plant a coconut sapling next to a named wooden plaque.
“SFF follows Song Saa Private Island’s ethos and is set up as a way of giving back,” says Donald. “We are trying to attract the ethical traveller; somebody who would like to get involved during their stay or, having left the island, reflects on the experience they just had, the impact they can have, and they also want to give back.”
For more information or to make a donation, visit here