Plan helps birds, villagers thrive in Cambodia

A five-year-old program protects waterbirds by turning poachers into rangers.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Picture an airport on water, buzzing with big birds doing takeoffs, landings, and midair acrobatics. Then exchange the roar of jet engines for the peeps of just-hatched chicks: That's what it's like to boat through Prek Toal.

This seasonally flooded forest in the heart of Cambodia is the most important, most prolific waterbird zone in mainland Southeast Asia. A five-year-old conservation program has nearly eliminated poaching and Prek Toal's bird populations are beginning to soar.

Seven rare and endangered birds make their homes here. Take the Oriental darter: "When I started, there were 200 nesting pairs," says Kong Vannak, head of the Environmental Research Station in the Prek Toal floating village. With November's latest hatchlings, rangers have counted more than 11,000 darters, a total greater than anywhere else in the region.

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Prek Toal is part of a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve on the flanks of the Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia's largest freshwater lake, with the world's largest freshwater fisheries. It's a remarkable ecosystem: Every year during the monsoons from May through October, the lake's water level rises 30 feet as the Tonle Sap River rushes in. When the rains stop, the river reverses, draining the lake and turning Prek Toal dry.

These waters foster the region's largest colonies of black-headed ibis, painted storks, and lesser adjutants. It also has Southeast Asia's only colony of milky storks, the world's second-largest population of greater adjutants, and the world's largest grouping of spot-billed pelicans. "Combining all these figures, it's hard to overestimate the international significance of the site," says Joe Walston, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Cambodia Program.

It wasn't always so. For years, a thriving trade in chicks and eggs threatened the birds, which locals prized as food for holiday festivals. In January 2001, government officials stopped a boat leaving Prek Toal with 1,400 cormorant eggs. The incident prompted the Ministry of Environment and WCS to establish a conservation team, which now consists of about 25 rangers.

Many of those rangers are former bird hunters and egg collectors. Why? Poachers know where to find the birds, and they understand the landscape. Plus, they can earn more money as rangers than they ever did in the bird business - an incentive to keep working. According to a 2005 WCS report, eggs are sold for about 3 cents each and chicks for $1.25. If today's rangers returned to poaching, they would earn about $187 a year. As rangers, WCS pays them $5 a day, averaging $800 a year.

That's significant money in a region where most people survive on less than $1 a day.

Prek Toal is a tough place to live. Crops don't grow in the floods, and livestock is hard to raise. "People depend on nature," Mr. Kong says, which is why many resorted to poaching.

When conservationists first told villagers to stop hunting, many thought, "We have to do this because we need income for our family," explains Yim Samat, a poacher-turned-ranger. His attitude has changed. "After working four years, we love the birds. We don't want to collect anymore."

Rangers work from treetop platforms with vast views, camping far from home, using basic equipment needed for two primary functions: counting birds and watching for poachers. The result? Few collectors and more birds. Since the program began, Kong says, two hunters have been apprehended. Both were sentenced to work as rangers without pay.

Still, Mr. Walston of the WCS cautions, "Nothing is won yet." China plans to dam the interconnecting Mekong River, which "could have catastrophic effects on not just the colonies of Prek Toal but on the entire Great Lake as well."

And ranger Yim stresses that Prek Toal remains desperately poor. People always put food and security before conservation. "The main priority is money for our families," he says.

But right now he's happy to sit on his platform, shaded from the scorching sun. Nearby, more than 140 cheeping and chirping darters and cormorants cover a single tree. Adults zigzag through the air with nesting material in their beaks. It's an amazing spectacle, but Yim confesses a little secret: "Sometimes I get a little bit bored," way out here on water, "because there's nothing to do."

Nothing but admire the birds.

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