Glimpsing Cambodia's lost birds

Glimpsing Cambodia's lost birds

Siem Reap

The Sam Veasna Centre has been bringing tourists face to face with the

Kingdom's increasingly rare fauna since 2006, but its now turning a

profit - and attracting more than just birdwatchers.

Photo by:
Kyle Sherer/Ron Hoff

Ace birdwatcher and Sam Veasna Centre guide Howie Nielsen and a guide birdspot at Trapeang Pos (above). The "near mythical" Giant Ibis (inset), one of the birds that can be seen at the centre's Tmatboey site. 

The Sam Veasna Centre in Siem Reap has been driving people wild since 2006, and introducing naturalists, enthusiasts and tourists to wilderness areas in and around northern Cambodia has paid off.

The tours to see Cambodia's lost birds, and to experience what may be the swan song of several critically endangered species, are so successful that the centre, previously sustained by the Wildlife Conservation Society, became financially self-sufficient at the end of last year, and this year has started to feed money back to the society that nurtured it.

Ten years ago, Cambodian environmentalist Sam Veasna died from malaria while searching for the now-presumed extinct kouprey, and the centre was built in his honour in 2003, with support from the Wildlife Conservation Society.

The centre's aim was to increase awareness of Cambodian natural heritage, and in 2006, after being bombarded with pleas from birdwatchers, the society granted the Sam Veasna Centre the exclusive right to take tour groups into the protected Tmatboey range in Preah Vihear.  

This paved the way for many other tours, and this year, to meet the demand of eager sightseers, the Sam Veasna Centre and the Wildlife Conservation Society are preparing new tour sites in Preah Vihear, scheduled to be ready for the 2010 tourist season.

World takes notice

But not only is the centre attracting more tourists, it is also attracting worldwide attention due to its discoveries of rare species.

Ace birdwatcher Howie Nielsen, a Sam Veasna Centre guide, spoke to the Post while twitching at Trapeang Pos, in Siem Reap, during a postcard-perfect sunrise.

Howie, 60, has been birding since the age of 22, when a mentor taught him to "identify birds and drink whiskey" on the banks of the Mississippi river.

He pointed out that Veasna Centre scouts are now logging sightings of critically endangered birds, as well as species that are not even listed as living in Cambodia.

"Because of the last 30 years of turmoil, Cambodia is still ‘terra incognita'," Howie said.

"Only recently have birders started noting what's going on. New birds are being added to the Cambodia list each year. We're finding things and raising eyebrows. Sam Veasna guides are seeing birds and back in New York, people are saying ‘They saw what?'"



Howie believes Cambodia is ripe for exploration.

"You see birds here that you wouldn't see in Thailand or Vietnam. I love the surprise - looking at something and not being sure what it is; never knowing what you're going to see; the element of discovery."  

But, he adds, there is a risk that in a few years, the endangered species might vanish altogether.

"I think Southeast Asia is changing faster than any area on Earth. We should work to conserve and experience it before it disappears."

Nick Butler, coordinator of the Sam Veasna Centre, identifies habitat loss, such as the conversion of flood plain to rice paddy at Tonle Sap, and the clearance of flooded forests at Prek Toal, as the biggest threat to endangered birds.

"On top of that, there's always been hunting pressure, and with a growing population that pressure is increasing."

To preserve the wildlife, the centre has to show local communities they can make a greater income from tourists than from logging or hunting.

"Instead of hunting, local communities can establish guesthouses, cook, conduct tours of the village and sell locally made goods, like silk scarves," he said.

Expanding destinations

In 2008, villagers at Tmatboey generated an income of US$12,000 from Sam Veasna Centre bird tours.

Progress at the site won the centre the Equator Prize for Poverty Reduction last year, and the Wild Asia Responsible Tourist Award in 2007.

Giant ibis

While Tmatboey remains the Centre's flagship site, one of the only places where tourists can catch a glimpse of the "near mythical" giant and white-shouldered ibises, the centre also travels to a variety of other destinations including the Florican Grasslands; Prek Toal on Tonle Sap Lake;  the Chhep, feeding station for vultures, jackals and leopards; Ang Trapaing Thmor;  Kratie; and, most recently,  Mondulkiri.

This year, Nick hopes the center can work with hotels to target Siem Reap tourists.

"The hotels will be keen to promote Sam Veasna because they know it's a genuine ecotourism agency, and it gives them something else for their guests to do apart from temples," Butler said.

"For the first time this year, we've had a tour group visiting that are not birders," he added.

 "They're visiting the temples, but they're also getting an idea of what Cambodian rural life is like and seeing some exquisitely beautiful countryside that has some very rare birds. It's the complete picture of Cambodia."