Sam Saman, 16, sits in one corner of his small wooden house, his mother looking over him. She is clearly proud of her son. Two weeks before, while tending their cows, Sam Saman came across an ill Sarus Crane.
“I saw it was starving and was sick,” he says. “It had wasted away. It weighed only about 6 kilogrammes. It had nothing to eat.”
The boy followed the bird, classified as vulnerable on the red list of threatened species, and took it to the local protection officer.
Receiving no reward for his good Samaritan act, Sam Saman even had to pay for the moto that took him to the conservation area.
“I felt sorry for it,” he says. “I feel love for them. I have something beautiful to see when I work.”
Sam Saman lives in the village of Anlung Pring, some 1.5 kilometres from the Vietnamese border. One of the few nesting grounds for the wetland bird in Cambodia, a conservation area was created there in 2006. Covering 217 hectares, it is illegal to kill any birds there.
Buth Sambath, 56, has worked as a protection officer at Anlung Pring since its inception. According to him, the cranes settle there from November to May before flying off to Ang Trapeng Thmor Reserve in Banteay Meanchey Province.
Educational projects run in the local community have had a positive impact on the behaviour of villagers towards the local birdlife.
“Since we started to protect this area and we have tried to educate the people to understand the necessity [to protect] the birds, the people have quit hunting all types of birds,” he says. “Before that the villagers used to hunt a lot.”
The proof being in the pudding, Buth Sambath claims that the number of birds at Anlung Pring is increasing.
“A study of the area in 2003, calculated the Sarus Crane population as only 30, now there are 238 cranes,” he says.
The same is true of the near threatened Black-headed Ibis that also nests at Anlung Pring. “In 2003 there were only one or two ibis,” he says. “Last year I counted 130. They come here for around two months at the start of the rainy season once the cranes have migrated.”
It is not just education but a fear of the consequences of non-compliance with the protection order that is having
an effect on the villagers. Sam Saman admits that part of his reason for taking the sick crane to the conservation team was a fear of the punishment that might be meted out to him.
“I was scared they would arrest me,” he says. “If I ate the crane they would arrest me.”
One of his neighbours claims that anyone found killing the endangered bird could end up in jail.
“Some officials told us that if we killed a crane we would be imprisoned for six months and fined money,” says Orn Srey, 21. “We are scared.”
Orn Srey used to hunt birds with a slingshot, although he claims he never killed a crane, only smaller birds. “I stopped three years ago,” he says.
Now, the cranes fill him with happiness.
“They are beautiful and their song is lovely, especially in the morning,” he says. “They are very big. When they cross the fields, some people confuse them for buffalos.”
Unfortunately, there was no happy ending for Sam Saman’s crane.
“It was too starved,” says Buth Sambath. “It could not find anything to eat and it could not walk. About a week after coming here it died.”
As we are leaving, eight Sarus Cranes land on the wetlands across a small canal from Buth Sambath’s sentry post. Through his binoculars, the birds resemble paratroopers landing in no man’s land. It is easy to see why the villagers of Anlung Prinh love their vulnerable guests.
INTERPRETER: RANN REUY