PHNOM PENH (AFP) – Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on Sunday (Aug 7) cancelled a controversial satellite-city development around a wildlife sanctuary and zoo near the capital following growing online appeals to halt the project.

Conservationists and locals began voicing their concerns and objections when the development plan around the Phnom Tamao zoo and wildlife rescue centre came to light several months ago.

Developers last week started razing privatised areas around the more than 2,000-hectare Phnom Tamao forest area, an hour drive from capital Phnom Penh, and home to many rare and endangered wildlife including sambar deer at the zoo.

Officials defended the development saying the area’s land was too sandy for trees and wild pigs destroyed farmers’ crops.

But on Sunday morning, strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered the project stopped and thanked compatriots for their “constructive comments” and requests to conserve the forest around the Phnom Tamao zoo.

“I order… all permits for land swap and development be cancelled,” Mr Hun Sen said in a post on his official Facebook page.

He said that the forest around the zoo must be preserved, ordering the companies to replant trees on dozens of hectares of land they have already cleared.

Wildlife Alliance rescue and care programme director Nick Marx, who has been working at Phnom Tamao for some 20 years, said Mr Hun Sen’s decision “demonstrates Cambodia’s desire to conserve wildlife.”

“Phnom Tamao without the forest around is just the zoo. With the forest around, it is a place for real conservation to take place and this is what’s important to conserve wildlife,” Mr Marx told AFP.

He added that before Mr Hun Sen’s order the forest was “being cleared quite quickly”.

Rampant poaching, habitat loss from logging, agriculture and dam building has stripped much wildlife from Cambodian rainforests.