It was once the unspoiled jungle home for tigers, elephants, bears and gibbons. But today Botum Sakor National Park in southwest Cambodia is fast disappearing to accommodate a much less endangered species: the Chinese gambler.
"This was all forest once," says Chut Wutty, director of the Natural Resource Protection Group, an environmental watchdog based in the capital, Phnom Penh, gesturing across a near-treeless landscape.
"But then the government sold the land to rich men."
He means Tianjin Union Development Group, a real-estate company from northern China, which is transforming 340 sq km (130 sq miles) of Botum Sakor into a city-sized gambling resort for "extravagant feasting and revelry," its website says.
A 64-km (40-mile) highway, now almost complete, will cut a four-lane swathe through mostly virgin forest.
National parks and wildlife sanctuaries in Cambodia, an impoverished country known for its ancient temples and genocidal Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s, could soon vanish entirely as deep-pocketed Chinese investors accelerate a secretive sell-off of protected areas to private companies, warns Chut Wutty and other activists.
The land sales also point to another trend: the expansion of Chinese economic interests in Southeast Asia's undeveloped frontiers, which comes at a delicate time as tensions simmer over China's sovereignty claims in the disputed South China Sea and the United States vows to re-engage with the region.
Text: Andrew RC Marshall and Prak Chan Thul, Reuters