PREK TOAL - "When I was a child, there were so many birds on the Tonle Sap that
when one tried to fly up, it would bump into another and fall back into the water,"
Eam Chhay recalls with a chuckle.
In the 1930s, when Chhay was growing up, the flooded forests surrounding his native
village of Prek Toal - on the Tonle Sap lake's northwestern shore - sheltered thousands
of large waterbirds.
"There were hundreds of thousands of pelicans, cranes and storks, but I saw
fewer and fewer each year," he says. "Last year I didn't see any."
Chhay was not the only one to notice fewer birds flying in the skies above his floating
Last year, after bird numbers reportedly fell to an alarming 10 percent of what they
were in the 1970s, scientists and local officials stepped in.
Today, it seems, the birds are coming back.
With some species teetering on the brink of extinction, foreign and Khmer conservation
experts launched efforts to save what they say is one of the few remaining large
waterbird colonies in the country, and perhaps the most important breeding ground
in the world for some species.
"Prek Toal is the largest natural nesting area for large waterbirds in the country
and possibly in the whole of Southeast Asia," says Sun Hean, head of conservation
at the wildlife protection office of the Siem Reap Forestry Department.
"Black-headed ibis, greater adjutant storks, gray-headed fish-eagles all nest
here," he says, naming just a few on the endangered species list.
According to experts, most large waterbirds that live in neighboring countries breed
in Cambodia - most of them around Prek Toal.
"If these breeding grounds are destroyed, not only will there be no more large
waterbirds in Cambodia, but some species may disappear altogether from the world,"
says Nao Thouk, the director of fisheries in Siem Reap.
To identify the causes for the sharp decline in bird numbers, teams of researchers
have waded through villages and flooded forests, painstakingly conducting hundreds
of interviews with local people.
"The major threat is the over-harvesting of eggs, chicks and fledglings practiced
by local villagers," explains Haidy Ear-Dupuy, from the International Crane
Foundation (ICF) in Phnom Penh.
Eggs and chicks are collected and raised by people who eat the birds, or sell them
on local markets, as a cheaper substitute to chickens and ducks.
Ear-Dupuy says some birds are luckier than others: "Cormorant and pelican chicks
and eggs are not harvested as much because their taste is not considered good."
Other species are heavily harvested, especially to provide a tasty feast over Khmer
"We collect eggs and raise the chicks of [Saurus] cranes and painted-storks
to eat their meat during the New Year's celebrations," explains Luon Sroy, a
fisherman and part-time egg collector in the neighboring village of Kampong Prahok.
"We eat fish all year long, and the birds taste better than chickens."
Egg harvesting is difficult and not very profitable.
"There are many thorns in the forest and it is very difficult to reach the nesting
areas," says Then Sang in Kampong Prahok.
"We go for four or five days into the forest and wait quietly for the birds
to cry to locate the nests," he explains.
According to locals, a painted-stork egg sells for 100 riel, while bigger pelican
eggs can fetch 500 riel in the markets of Battambang and Siem Reap.
"I can get 100 eggs at a time and make 5,000 riel per trip," says Luon
Sroy. "I go to collect eggs two or three times a year."
A two-month long, house-to-house awareness campaign carried out by the International
Crane Foundation (ICF) has already proved effective at reducing local consumption.
"At first local villagers seemed surprised to hear that these birds are rare,
and local authorities were not even aware of the existence of conservation laws,"
says Haidy Ear-Dupuy.
Today, posters with drawings of endangered waterbird species are displayed on the
walls of the floating Prek Toal police station and school.
"In this area, no one harvests eggs anymore," boasts Ieng Sang, the deputy
police chief in Prek Toal. He says it's a big change from just last year, when hundreds
of people collected several thousand eggs over Khmer New Year alone.
Although experts say that Iang Sang's statement may be a bit over-optimistic, local
people seem at least aware of conservation issues.
Eam Chhay is one. Pointing at the poster of endangered species he says, "The
painted storks have increased at least by 20 percent this year, and there are at
least 10 percent more birds in total than there were last year."
But the problem is not only local consumption - there is also a demand for certain
rare species for the international wildlife trade.
Local villagers, and Siem Reap authorities, say that big rewards have been offered
for endangered waterbirds.
"Last year, a middleman from Battambang went around the villages showing a catalogue
of rare birds, and offering a reward of $500 dollars for a pair of giant ibis and
$400 for black-necked storks," says Sun Hean of the provincial wildlife protection
Ieng Sang, the local police chief, says Thai and Khmer businessmen have offered cash
for rare birds, as well as turtles and pythons, to resell to Korean and Chinese restaurants.
Provincial officials told researchers that last year a Thai businessman offered a
Toyota Camary in reward for either a male and female black crane - or for looted
artifacts from the Angkor complex.
"This generated a frenzy among villagers who went out on a rampage catching
anything that moved, not having the necessary knowledge to differentiate among the
various species," says Haidy Ear-Dupuy.
Despite the lure of quick money, education efforts - without any offer of compensation
- seem to have been successful, at least for the time-being.
"Since we were not allowed to collect eggs this year, there are many more birds
in the sky," says Son Phat, a mother from Kampong Prahok.
She ponders for a while and then adds: "Soon there will be so many birds that
they'll eat all the fish in the Tonle Sap."
Conservationists say it's too early to celebrate, and unusually high floodwaters
may have contributed to reduced havesting this year.
In the longer term, officials and environmentalists agree that viable development
plans for the area are vital. Eco-tourism, some believe, is the answer.
"Eco-tourism can be very profitable. If we can organize eco-tourism, the government
can make more money and create more jobs for local people," says Nao Thouk of
the Siem Reap Fisheries Department. "But we need to do it carefully, not to
destroy the natural habitat."
Haidy Ear-Dupuy agrees: "We need to delineate the critical areas that need to
lie undisturbed, and areas where birds come to hang out where tourists would not
disturb the breeding cycle."
Outey Mea, director of the Institute for Khmer Habitat, says it will take two to
three years to "build up even primitive facilities and infrastructure to welcome
tourists in the area".
In the meantime, some are pleased with the short-term results. "I am very happy
that more birds have come back," Eam Chhay says with a smile on his weathered