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How critically endangered birds help villagers survive

Dedicated bird-watchers consult their recognition charts as they wait for a glimpse of the rare ibis. Photo by: Hector Bermejo

THE village of Tmatboey, on Cambodia’s northern plains, looks very much like other places in this remote and impoverished part of the country. When they’re not toiling in their rice fields, villagers gather in their wooden houses.  

Children walk along dirt roads to school carrying their books in one hand and fruit in the other. The occasional lucky one rides a bicycle.

Tmatboey is also one of the few remaining nesting grounds for two of the world’s most endangered bird species: the giant ibis and the white-shouldered ibis.

Once found from Malaysia to the Chinese border, both are now critically endangered.

In 2003, the World Conservation Society (WCS) established a community eco-tourism project at Tmatboey.

In return for villagers helping to preserve the birds’ habitat, the WCS provides the local commune council with money to help fund local projects.

This money is raised from an agreed donation by bird-watchers who stay at the WCS’s guesthouse on the edge of the village, through the society’s responsible tourism partner, the Sam Veasna Center.

“Almost all the people here benefit from this project,” says Tha Leang, 55, the second commune councillor for Tmatboey. “We get a street and we get new wells.” There are now 10 wells in the community, so villagers can raise chickens and vegetables to feed the tourists.

Tha Leang admits that at first, it was difficult to get the villagers to change their habits.

“The people used to hunt,” he says. “Now it’s better. We educate them regularly to make them understand. Our area is wildlife-protected.”

Although he admits there is still some poaching, Tha Leang says it is much less than before. Data collected by the WCS supports this claim.

In 2002, just before the WCS began its project, only a single pair of white-shouldered ibis were found nesting at Tmatboey.

By 2009, this had increased to five pairs, and the number of ibis roosts has increased from two to 43.

December to March is the best time to see these elusive birds.

“I do not hunt. I love to see the birds flying,” Pheang Savin, 13, says. Like the rest of the vill-age’s children, Pheang Savin has learned from WCS representatives the importance of preserving the birds’ natural habitat, and the lesson seems to have stuck.

Pheang Savin’s teacher, Norng Chanthol, 19, was born and raised in Tmatboey. She began teaching at the school only three months ago, but passes on to her students the lessons she learned while she was at the school.

“I tell them [her students] not to destroy the birds’ eggs and not to burn their nests,” Norng Chanthol says. “Usually, people here take the eggs to cook.”

Our guide, Yen Sary, takes us out into the nearby grasslands, where we wait beside some wooden viewing huts as the sun sets, hoping to catch a glimpse of the white-shouldered ibis.

About an hour later, six pairs of this extremely rare bird swoop in from the skies to rest on a high, stripped tree in the distance.

The WCS does not allow tourists to get any closer that that for fear of disturbing the birds.

Through Yen Sary’s telescope, we can see the birds up close, clearly making out their distinctive white collars.

Then, as quickly as they arrived, the birds take flight again. It’s a magnificent spectacle.

INTERPRETER: RANN REUY

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