You may assume that the Cardamom Mountains are the stuff of legend—the name itself conjures images of mist-shrouded mountains plucked straight out of a fantasy novel. The remote tract of rain forest is actually tucked away in southwestern Cambodia, but with one of the most alarming rates of deforestation in the world, the once-magnificent swath of forest-covered mountains is in danger of becoming nothing more than local lore.

Still, it’s a great name. “The first thing that drew me to the Cardamom Mountains was its name,” admits photographer Francesco Lastrucci. “It just sounds pretty cool.” Lastrucci’s work doesn’t focus exclusively on the environment, but he has always been interested in the people behind conservation movements. Once he began researching the lyrically named place and learned about the radical approach local conservationists are taking, he knew he had to visit.

A woman steers a ferry across the river in Chi Phat
Of the approximately 237,300,000 hectares (or some 500 million acres) of rain forest that once covered South and Southeast Asia, only about 5 percent remains. One fifth of those remaining forests are in Cambodia. Sure, the Cambodian government formally protects large tracts of its rain forest, but as it has proved either unwilling or unable to properly enforce the policy, Cambodian rain forests are protected on paper alone.
A ranger searches for evidence of illegal activities in a field
Compared to other parts of the country, the Cardamoms are curiously well preserved. The area was once the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge, protected by default thanks to guerrilla control. By the 1990s, the last of the guerrillas had been ousted, and the lush region, its untouched biodiversity, and the 100 mammal species—including pangolins, sun bears, and macaques—was left vulnerable. There’s not much a piece of legal paper can do to protect prime virgin land in the face of illegal loggers, poachers, slash-and-burn farmers, and clear-cutting plantation agriculture businesses.

For access and information about the mysterious area, Lastrucci turned to the Wildlife Alliance, an environmental non-governmental organization (NGO) holding down the front lines in Cambodia’s conservation fight. Since 2000, the organization has adopted a decidedly aggressive approach to protecting the environment. It focuses first on law enforcement, then on creating eco-friendly job alternatives for locals, education, reforestation, and wildlife rehabilitation and release. And the approach seems to be working.

The Cardamom Mountains are home to a broad range of birds and mamals—including suspected undiscovered species
In Phnom Penh, Lastrucci boarded a bus and made the five-hour journey to Chi Phat, the gateway to the Cardamoms, as he calls it. “It’s three hours with the bus, and then you take a boat two hours up the river,” he says. “It’s not bad—just five hours and then you’re in the middle of the rain forest. It’s very laid-back and idyllic.”
Drying rice in the village of Chi Phat
Until a few years ago, a majority of the 500 families living in Chi Phat were either hunters or slash-and-burn farmers. But here’s where things get interesting—unlike other conservation organizations, the Wildlife Alliance did more than simply proselytize on the error of these traditional ways. “You can be as educated as you want, but if you are hungry, you can still be enticed into returning to illegal activity,” says Lastrucci.

Instead, the Wildlife Alliance worked with locals to create alternative sources of income, from the launch of a promising eco-tourism industry to sustainable agricultural practices that have increased crop yields by 300 percent. With guesthouses, English-speaking trail guides, and activities like kayaking and mountain biking, the village and its surrounding, rarely trammeled trails are already starting to attract intrepid travelers.

Rangers catch and question a suspected poacher
But while two million replanted trees, 5,000 new sustainable jobs, and a halt in local wildlife decline show success, the most revolutionary aspect of this conservation movement is its emphasis on law enforcement. That, too, has become a local responsibility. Wildlife Alliance may recruit, train, and equip the forest rangers—and help set their fair salaries—but the rangers themselves all call the rain forest home. “Many former poachers have now switched sides and become rangers,” Lastrucci says. They stalk the forests in search of illegal logging and poaching activities, chasing down suspects, and confiscating homemade weapons. In other words, the hunters have become the hunted.
The village of Chi Phat
Lastrucci stayed at Chi Phat’s local ranger station, joining the rangers on their stakeouts and forest patrols. It was like a spy game. “We were there trying to ambush these people. The guys [rangers] have a lot of experience, so they know where loggers and poachers might go. They also have informants, but you never know if you have a good informer. Often we would wait on the edge of the rain forest in the early morning where they might come out after working at night. That’s why many of my pictures have a beautiful light, it’s because it was right before sunrise.”
A pangolin at the wildlife rehabilitation center in Chi Phat
Like any true spy game, the long, silent stretches of waiting and watching were punctured by mad dashes of action. “Each one of us had a motorbike, and we would chase these guys. I mean, they were trying to catch the guy; I was chasing them to get the good picture. You can imagine how difficult it is to ride a motorcycle in the rain forest, with the water and the mud and all the falling down. And there are leeches everywhere, all the time. But it made me understand how you have to be committed to the job.”
Local monks shower just outside of Chi Phat
Lastrucci is sure there’s more behind that commitment than a good salary. “They’re really out of the rainforest themselves,” he notes. “Sometimes, when we were going up the river in a boat, we would stop along the way. If you looked through the trees you could see a house, and then one of the rangers would get off the boat and go inside the house. It felt like they wanted to show me, you know, where they come from.

“Most of the locals are very proud of what they are doing, very proud and very professional. My view is that they’re truly committed to this work because they live there. It's incredible to see a group of people fighting like this against very rich businesses with shady practices,” the photographer says. “They believe that they can, and they are. They’ve done so much so fast [in Chi Phat]. It made me think that this method works, and I hope that it can work in other parts of the world as well.”

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