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Ibis, crane deep in local culture


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Rare birds that are almost extinct in other parts of the world can still be seen in Cambodia. Publisher of The Cambodian Scene magazine Moeun Nhean has been to the habitats of some of these rare avians to capture images of them and this Friday, he will bring the fruits of his labour to the German Cambodian Cultural Center, Meta House, in Phnom Penh.

Moeun Nhean, 40, started snapping birds in 1999 in the seasonally-flooded forests around the Tonle Sap lake, in low-lying areas of Banteay Meanchey, Takeo, Kampot, Rattanakiri and Mondulkiri  provinces and in the forests of Preah Vihear province. He took pictures of different species, but for this exhibition, Nhean wanted to focus on the rare birds such as the Giant Ibis and Sarus Crane.

“I like nature and the ancient temples, so I conduct research about them. I found the Sarus Crane and Giant Ibis are connected with Cambodian society. By the way, they are almost extinct from the world. Many people may hear about their name but never see them. So by displaying  the pictures of these birds, people will know what they look like,” Moeun Nhean says.

Moeun Nhean, who is also a professional photographer, spent his free time tracking down rare birds in the provinces. He had to enter the deep jungle and even stayed a few nights to capture the best images. In particular, he knows how deeply the Sarus Crane is connected with Cambodian beliefs.

“One forest in Preah Vihear province where Sarus Cranes lay eggs is close to some temples. People told me that some Sarus Cranes from Preah Vihear cross the border to look for food in Laos where there are ancient temples too. In Takeo, another shelter where these birds live is also near ancient temples. I think that Sarus Cranes like to stay close to the gods because temples are supposed to be the place of gods. That might be the reason that their pictures were carved on the walls of ancient temple such as Banteay Chhmar, Angkor Wat and Bayon temple,” he said.

People who live near the Ang Trapaing Thmor Crane Sanctuary in Banteay Meanchey province told Moeun Nhean that this bird has a special sense. They can send a warning to people that something will happen. The way that they alert people is to scream while they are flying clockwise. If people see that, they believe there will be a man and woman in their village who love each other, but they will break with tradition by staying together without being married.

“People who live near Sarus Cranes sanctuaries in Takeo and Kampot have lost this belief, but villagers in Banteay Meanchey still believe in it,” he says.

Nhean says, although there are only about one thousand Sarus Cranes left in Cambodia, they are luckier than another rare bird, the Giant Ibis that lives in Preah Vihear, Mondulkiri and Ratanakkiri provinces, which was used as a symbol of Cambodia.

Moeun Nhean has discovered that the Giant Ibis has a good way of living. They stay in pairs, male and female, or with their families. Parents will fly after their children. He believes that these birds can listen to each other and are honest with each other. “The Giant Ibis is as relevant to people as a god. They are like cockerels because every morning, they screech loudly with one particular sound which wakes farmers to go to their fields. But they have another particular call as well.

“If they screech with that call, they have probably seen a hunter, a tiger or someone who means them harm. They alert other birds, animals as well as people to be careful,” Moeun Nhean said.

Though there are still ibises living in Cambodia, their numbers are small. Moeun Nhean says that there are about one to two hundred Giant Ibises left. Most Cambodians have never seen one, but they have probably heard their name in popular songs from the 1960s such as The Partridge Screeches to Ask, the Giant Ibis Screeches to Answer and The Giant Ibis Crosses the Border.

“Many people who live outside regions where ibises live don’t know what this bird looks like, but everybody probably knows these songs about ibis quite well. The singers in the 1960s sang songs naming the Giant Ibis. I’m sure the songs were  around before the1960s. Maybe they were composed in the Angkorian era,” he said.

In his exhibition, Nhean focuses on four points: birds, history, connectivity and arts.

For birds, he will show what they look like and where they live and how they find food. For history, he will show information on the birds. For connectivity, he will reveal how these birds are connected to Cambodian culture. Lastly, he will demonstrate the popularity of these birds by showing how they have been used in artwork such as painting, sculpture, statues on the ancient temples, songs, legends and poems.

“I hope after they see these rare birds, they will cooperate together to preserve them,” Moeun Nhean says.

There are eight large and 40 smaller photographs. Besides the Sarus Crane and Giant Ibis, he will also show pictures of other birds, including many of water birds.

The exhibition will open at 6pm tomorrow at Meta House, #37 Sothearos Boulevard Entrance is free. The photographer will be present too.

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