Villagers working for the environmental station in Prek Toal, near Siem Reap, make their way to the other side of the floating village.
he skilled bird poacher dips his paddle into the tea-colored water and draws closer
to the tree. The branches sag under the weight of the nests of young water birds,
whose anxious parents, a dozen Spot-billed pelicans and Greater Adjutants, beat their
wings in agitation.
"I like this job," says Riam Rom, 44, to the tourists squatting in the
boat behind him. "But if people go on collecting eggs, in the future we'll have
Rom is one of a growing number of villagers on the Tonle Sap who have switched professions
- from professional bird poacher to protector, thanks to a campaign led by conservation
and community development organizations.
In the shadow of Angkor Wat, a new experiment in tourism is taking shape that may
be the salvation of some water bird species, and the key to prosperity for the poorest
villagers that share the Tonle Sap with them.
The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and a community tourism development NGO called
Osmose plan to make one of Asia's largest breeding colonies of water birds an environmentally-sound
destination for hordes of tourists arriving in Siem Reap each year.
Far from the crowds, vendors and even roads and electricity, Prek Toal, in Battambang
province, floats on the waters of the Tonle Sap. Its 5,000 inhabitants live on bamboo-raft
houses and converted fishing boats that rock in the wake of passing vessels.
Just a short boat ride from Siem Reap, Prek Toal serves as the gateway to breeding
colonies of some of Asia's rarest water birds. Located at the edge of Fishing Lot
Number 2, the most productive and lucrative on the lake, the village boasts a floating
environmental center and basic lodging to accommodate visitors exploring the recently
designated Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve, a 21,000 hectare reserve of seasonally flooded
This critical habitat, which is a mixture of dense, impenetrable underbrush and ancient
gallery forests, has been under assault for years. More than half its original area
of about 1.3 million acres has been cleared since 1960, says WCS.
But the key to saving it, the NGO insists, is not a conventional conservation campaign.
It requires a development effort to wean villagers off wildlife poaching and onto
a livelihood based on eco-tourism. Convincing the insular fishing villagers of Prek
Toal that catering to tourists holds more promise than the old ways has proven difficult.
"I think in the conservation field, there's very few programs like this,"
says Frédéric Goes, coordinator of the Tonle Sap Conservation Project
at WCS. "It takes time to build trust and understanding of what we are doing."
The villagers were skeptical at first of the organization's claims that the birds
could make money as tourist attractions rather than provide a good meal.
"They thought we were trying to sell them something," says Goes. "[But]
what makes the project unique is the investment in conservation directly benefits
25 [of the poorest] families. Secondly, there is eco-tourism by Osmose [that] provides
funding for the education of children, and makes a connection between education and
The poorest members of the village have traditionally collected chicks and eggs from
colonies of nesting birds. Extensive collection in past years led to breeding failure
for many species. But today, villagers have joined the WCS payroll as tour guides
WCS estimates that in 1996, before its program began, at least 26,000 eggs and 3,000
chicks were harvested from Prek Toal. With prices set at 100 riel per egg, bird collectors
remained chronically poor while wild populations plummeted.
"The recruitment of these species was very low," Goes says. "Some
colonies have already been eradicated around the lake, but probably managed to have
a remnant population [in Prek Toal]."
A biological survey carried out by WCS states that the Tonle Sap populations of Oriental
Darter, Glossy Ibis, Milky Stork, Spot-Billed Pelican and Greater Adjutant represent
the largest or last breeding colonies in the region.
One of the most troubled species on the lake, the Greater Adjutant, with a global
population of only 700 individuals, has thirty to forty pairs nesting in Prek Toal.
A total 142 species of birds were identified on the lake by the 2001 survey; 10 are
But a host of threats, from species collection by zoos to intentional disturbances
by fishing lot owners, keeps their situation precarious. Though the data is spotty,
scientists believe the downward spiral of bird populations elsewhere in Asia is also
happening in Cambodia. Time is running out, says Goes.
"This population is at very end of their age," he says. "They have
been collected for so many years. Clearly, [Prek Toal] is the top priority site for
their survival in Southeast Asia."
The Ministry of Environment (MoE) is enthusiastic about the project. Bonheur Neou,
the deputy director of the department of natural conservation and protection, says
the ministry has worked extensively with WCS in Prek Toal and seen good results from
"In fact there are more birds," he says. "However there are still
a lot of things that need to be improved in terms of conservation ... In the future
we hope we will have lots of birds, and the people around Prek Toal will prosper."
WCS launched its effort two years ago to recruit local villagers as rangers, scientific
observers and, in some cases, ad hoc law enforcement officers against poachers.
Between 1999 and early 2001, these environmental officers confiscated five major
hauls of wildlife amounting to more than a thousand eggs, dozens of endangered water
birds, and other endangered wildlife. Goes estimates that incidents of poaching have
declined 90 percent since 1996.
The program has an annual budget of $25,000 and a full-time conservation team of
25 rangers recruited from the ranks of local villagers, enforcement authorities and
former bird collectors like Riam Rom.
A ranger guides tourists to the Prek Toal breeding colonies.
To ensure the project benefits the villagers, says Goes, the project needed eco-tourism.
The partnership between WCS and French NGO Osmose to bring tourists to Prek Toal
"The key issue is eco-tourism," says Goes. "If you let market forces
do tourism, it won't work because the market is not interested in supporting local
communities. That's why we must face the problem as it is."
The growing rift between traditional nature tourism and eco-tourism designed to protect
the environment is in sharp relief here. Siem Reap's struggle with the crush of visitors
to Angkor Wat is mirrored in a smaller way at Prek Toal.
"The eco-tourism market in Siem Reap is exploding," says Natalie Nivot-Goes,
director of Osmose and wife of Frédéric Goes. "We feel that we
have reached our maximum capacity. We don't want to expand too much - what's more
important is how to channel that money back to the villagers, and that is a big question."
The eco-tourism scheme works by charging each visitor $60, of which $20 goes to the
Ministry of the Environment. The rest goes to fund the operating costs of the project
and supports the Community Development fund. The fund pays for floating vegetable
gardens and lessons for schoolchildren, and also helps raise living standards for
the most destitute villagers, those most likely to collect birds.
The number of visitors seeing Prek Toal with Osmose tripled from 46 in 1999 to 150
last year. Nivot-Goes expects that number to double again this year, which is still
only half the number visiting the area. That, she says, is a potentially worrying
"It's just like an investment," she says. "If [tourism agencies] are
willing to invest in this, give back to the conservation program, if they are willing
to involve villagers in the visit, it can be success. If it is just 'nature tourism',
and they just take without giving anything, it won't be successful."
Neou at the MoE says he is developing policies for sustainable eco-tourism. It has,
he says, been a "learning process" for the ministry.
"We target small-scale tourism - we don't attract two or three thousand tourists.
We are not ready for that," he admits. "If it is not properly organized,
eco-tourism may disturb nesting sites because there will be too many tourists. So
far I have seen only positive results."