The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Cambodia has voiced concern about the rapid decline of the Bengal florican (Houbaropsis bengalensis) population fuelled largely by habitat loss, rice farming and poaching, with a 2018 tally counting just over 100 territorial displaying males in the Kingdom.
Native to the Indian subcontinent, Cambodia, and formerly Vietnam, Bengal floricans are a member of the bustard family, and live in open grassland habitats with scattered bushes, the organisation said in a June 3 statement.
With a recent review estimating the global population at fewer than 500, the large grassland birds are listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species as “critically endangered”, possessing an extremely high risk of global extinction in the wild in the near future, it said.
It highlighted the subspecies Houbaropsis bengalensis blandini, which breeds exclusively in the Kingdom.
Experiencing a particularly sharp population decline in recent years, birds of this subspecies are mainly found in Kampong Thom province, with fewer numbers found in neighbouring Siem Reap province to the northwest, and a handful persisting in Banteay Meanchey, Battambang and Pursat provinces, according to WCS Cambodia.
More alarming still, Cambridge-based BirdLife International in 2013 predicted that the subspecies would become extinct by 2023, in a study published in quarterly peer-reviewed journal Bird Conservation International.
The Bengal florican is the sole member of its genus Houbaropsis, and the rarest member of the bustard order, Ortidiformes, according to the EDGE of Existence programme.
“Two thirds of the global population breed in the floodplain of the Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia – they migrate up to 100km annually to escape the floodwaters in the non-breeding season,” it said.
WCS Cambodia cited a range of major threats to Bengal floricans' survival, such as “loss of habitat owing to conversion of grasslands and low intensity rice cultivation to intensive dry-season rice, poaching and collisions with power lines”.
In 2019, WCS staff and partners published the results of more than a decade of monitoring that suggested that the number of displaying male Bengal floricans in the Kingdom was just 104 in 2018.
Known for their elaborate courtship displays, territorial displaying male Bengal floricans present one of the more reliable approaches to monitor population patterns, the Bombay Natural History Society noted in a 2017 study.
WCS Cambodia noted that in a bid to protect and conserve the species, the government established Bengal Florican Conservation Areas around the Tonle Sap Lake – now named the Northern Tonle Sap Lowland Protected Landscape – safeguarding 31,159ha under sub-decree across Kampong Thom and Siem Reap provinces in the Kingdom's north.
The organisation emphasised that it works closely with the Ministry of Environment to conserve the landscape and protect the Bengal florican and other rare species such as the yellow-breasted bunting (Emberiza aureola).
“Main conservation activities included support for law enforcement, community-based management of grassland, raising community awareness, florican nest protection, promoting the Sustainable Rice Platform as a mechanism for increasing the suitability of agriculture for Bengal florican, and the establishment of a new protected area in Pursat province,” WCS Cambodia said.
The Bengal florican is labelled as “rare” wildlife in Prakas No 020 from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fishery, it said.
Citing Cambodia Protected Area Law articles 56 and 61, WCS Cambodia said: “Third grade natural resource offence, those who committed wildlife offences such as catching, trapping, hunting, causing injury, poisoning, killing, taking out, collecting eggs and offspring from their original habitats of any vulnerable, rare, or critically endangered wildlife species shall carry a penalty of one-to-five years' imprisonment and/or a fine from 15-150 million riel [$3,750-37,500].”