When Trees Are Cut Down, Angkor’s Temples Begin to Crumble

People usually think of trees’ destructive impacts on Angkor, but they also protect those iconic temples

Photo: Topic Photo Agency/Corbis

The temples of Angkor in Cambodia are known for their lost-world feel, thanks in part to trees and vegetation that have colonized the structures. While giant roots and trunks pouring over ancient blocks and carvings look cool, the trees are actually a destructive force acting on the temples. Now, however, evidence has emerged that, in some cases, trees are also doing exactly the opposite—they are protecting rather than destroying the temples. 

The findings specifically refer to the thick forests that grew around the temples after they were abandoned in the 15th century. For centuries, Angkor was largely left in nature's hands. In the 20th century, however, interest in the mysterious sprawling complex had begun picking up. Photos take in 1905, for example, show one temple—Ta Keo—completely engulfed in jungle. Photos of the same temple in 1920 show a barren plot free from trees or vegetation, however. 

Researchers decided to test whether or not clearing the vegetation had any impacts on the temples. They compared Ta Keo, which never underwent any restoration, to Beng Mealea ("the Lotus Pond"), another temple that was built out of the same sandstone type but whose jungle surroundings were never tampered with. The team digitally analyzed the two buildings' structures and carvings and found that 79 percent of Beng Mealea's original carvings are still largely intact and in good condition, compared to just seven percent of Ta Keo's. Without the protective forest buffer, the temple stone, the authors explain, could not stand up to the "harsh impact of tropical sunshine and monsoon rains." 

"Disruption of archaeological structures by roots of individual trees can be locally observed at Angkor, but this does not negate the dominant overall buffering function of the forest cover," the authors conclude. "At Angkor and other cultural heritage sites, this bioprotective umbrella effectshould be considered as a valuable ecosystem service to be taken into account when defining and implementing strategies of sustainable management."

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