The Wonders of the Mekong project, aimed at promoting sustainable rivers in Southeast Asia, recently highlighted findings from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Cambodia indicating that vast amounts of Bengal florican habitats around Tonle Sap Lake have been lost due to encroachment on natural grasslands. As agricultural areas expand, more grassy areas are converted to farmland.

WCS Cambodia’s Tonle Sap landscape manager Sum Phearun said his team has surveyed the conservation area in Bralay commune, Stoung district, Kampong Thom province. This area, part of the Tonle Sap Northern Lowland Protected Landscape designated by the Ministry of Environment in 2016, serves as the primary habitat for the birds and represents their last remaining grassy habitat.

He added that the conservation area’s success, providing a home to several bird species, is the outcome of a 20-year collaborative effort involving the ministry, relevant institutions, the Kampong Thom and Siem Reap provincial environment departments as well as local authorities.

“Bengal florican populations have declined due to habitat loss, including land grabs and the conversion of vast grasslands to agriculture and rice farming. 

“Over 80 per cent of the grassy fields in six provinces surrounding the Tonle Sap Lake have been lost, leading to a drastic decline in suitable habitat for Bengal floricans. This loss, along with poaching and other threats, is driving their population decline,” he said. 

He added that an emerging challenge has emerged in the area: high-voltage power lines now run through the meadow. A year-long bi-weekly study conducted by WCS Cambodia and local communities revealed that six of the critically endangered birds had died from colliding with the power lines.

He stressed the severity of the situation by highlighting the sharp decline in the bird’s population. 

According to a 2023 WCS census, only 176 males of the species remain in Cambodia, marking a significant drop compared to historical numbers. This threat extends beyond Bengal floricans, as other birds like cranes, herons, painted storks, greater adjutants and lesser adjutants have also been found killed by colliding with the power lines. 

“Electricity of Cambodia (EDC) should consider installing bird signal devices on the power lines. This could potentially reduce the risk of bird collisions,” he said. 

Environment ministry spokesperson Khvay Atiya said that currently, almost all remaining suitable grasslands for endangered species conservation are located within protected areas. These areas are home to over 85 per cent of Cambodia’s total Bengal florican population.

“While the global Bengal florican population has declined significantly, the population within Cambodia appears to be stable. This stability can be attributed to the presence of well-managed protected areas that provide crucial habitat for the species,” he said. 

He continued that to protect the birds, the ministry has established over 30,000ha of protected landscape. Additionally, the ministry closely collaborates with conservationists to enforce wildlife laws, supported financially and technically by WCS Cambodia. The ministry educates people about the importance of Bengal floricans and has also established nature-based tourism communities and sustainable rice farming activities to safeguard their nests.

The Bengal florican (Houbaropsis bengalensis), also called the Bengal bustard, is a species native to the Indian subcontinent, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List since 2018, it faces an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild.