Early one morning, a middle-aged man sits near water mixing animal food and packing it into a plastic bag. He then heads to a water reservoir, knife in hand, holding a half-full plastic sports bottle. He spreads the food on the floor while his eyes glance in all angles, hoping to catch sight of his prey, before he retreats to some foliage to wait.
Before long, the man returns home with a selection of small birds, giving them to his wife to prepare lunch. He has poisoned the animals.
This is an awareness raising video produced by BirdLife International’s Cambodia Programme to highlight the risks of using animal poison.
“Poisoning is the most challenging thing. It doesn’t only kill the targeted animals, but it also kills vultures. Vultures are the most vulnerable to this as buffalos, cows and dogs killed by toxin die in forest, so when vultures come down to eat the bodies, they die too,” says Bou Vorsak, BirdLife International’s Cambodia Programme Manager, who has worked with the organisation since 2005.
BirdLife International is headquartered in England and works in 120 countries around the world, partnering with local and international NGOs in each place it works.
BirdLife’s Cambodia programme opened its office in 2003 but the organisation first began working in the Kingdom in 1996. Since 2003, it has worked with partner NGOs, as well as the Forestry Administration and the Ministry of Environment, to identify and protect 40 bird habitats in Cambodia.
“We’ve chosen four of 40 locations that are in urgent need of support in Lumphat [Ratanakiri province], Siem Phang [Stung Treng province], Boeung Prek Lpov [Takeo province] and Anlung Pring [Kampot province] ,” says Vorsak, sitting in his room filled with bird pictures and conservation certificates.
“We have been protecting endangered birds and among them we’ve found at least 600 species in Cambodia. They include extinct, critically endangered, endangered and highly vulnerable species."
“Seven or eight species that are critically endangered are three types of vultures [the red-headed, slender billed and white-rumped vultures], the giant and white-shouldered ibis, as well as the Bengal florican and yellow-breasted bunting.”
Vorsak says that with respect to the ibises, their numbers are critically low, both in Cambodia and globally.
“The giant ibis is Cambodia’s national bird. But the data shows there are only 250 worldwide and 90 per cent of ibises live in Cambodia. So if they become extinct in Cambodia, the world may lose them all."
“With the white-shouldered ibis, they are almost as endangered as data shows that their population is only about 1,000 globally, with Cambodia home to 85 per cent of them,” he says.
According to 2018 statistics, there are only 140 vultures in all of Cambodia, with the bird highly vulnerable to being poisoned.
Vorsak says international cooperation is crucial on this issue. For example, the yellow-breasted bunting lays eggs in Siberia, then flies across China, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar, before returning to its place of origin.
“We have an international partnership mechanism [the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership] to protect the flying routes of birds. Therefore, we have to work together."
“If Russia protects them, but Chinese people eat them and Cambodian people do not care about them when they arrive during harvest season, they will become extinct,” he says.
BirdLife also works to protect the sarus crane. While they are not classified as critically endangered species, they are highly vulnerable.
In the Indochina region, cranes are only present in Cambodia and Vietnam. Therefore, in Cambodia they are protected in Beoung Prek Lpov in Takeo province’s Borei Chulsa and Koh Andet districts, and in Anlung Pring in Kampot province’s Kampong Trach district.
“Every year, sarus cranes come to those sites after they lay eggs in Preah Vihear province. So we have to conserve these main locations for them,” says Vorsak, adding that there are approximately 20,000 cranes globally, with 900 of those in Cambodia.
He says they are trying to reintroduce the sarus crane in Thailand, where they became extinct a few years ago.
Vorsak says hunting, poisoning and logging are the main contributors to the devastation of wild animal populations in Cambodia.
“Prevously, we could see wild oxen [also known as the Kouprey] on wildlife documentaries, but now they are all extinct. Siem Phang and Lum Phat used to have a lot of wild buffalos [bantengs] but now their numbers have decreased dramatically due to hunting and trapping."
“And the most serious problem is poisoning. Poison is the most dangerous case as hunters are becoming lazier, they shift to using poisoned bait along the water line so that when animals eat them, they collect them easily,” he says.
He continued that as vultures eat in large groups, when they consume contaminated food large numbers of them die.
This is why BirdLife is advocating so strongly to stop the use of poisons.
BirdLife is currently pursuing a number of conservation efforts, and also works with communities on education about the importance of natural resources and wildlife, illustrating how they can benefit from the presence of wild animals near them.
“For example, since West Siem Phang became West Siem Phang sanctuary, the community can sell their Ibis Rice for up to 20 per cent more,” says Vorsak.
In Lum Phat Wildlife Sanctuary, BirdLife has helped to build a natural protection zone over 3,000ha of land. While in Anlung Pring, in cooperation with the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, they’ve created an eco-tourism destination that sells tickets for $10 each for people to watch cranes.
Half of this revenue is given to the community, while the other half is dedicated to conservation work.
Vorsak says that the general public must be very cautious about eating wild animals sold at local markets, as they may have been killed using poison.
He adds that authorities must do their jobs to prevent the further deterioration of wild animal numbers in Cambodia.
“I call for all authorities to do their jobs to prevent any hunting and destruction of their habitats."
“I do not expect that wild animal numbers will dramatically increase, I just hope they are at least protected enough to sustain their current numbers,” Vorsak says.