Humor helps a rare bird survive in Cambodia

Conservationists’ gentle engagement with locals boosts the prospects for the Bengal Florican.

David Montero
Conservationist Sum Song Zoning speaks about the value of the Bengal Florican bird to a group of villagers who live near Tonle Sap Lake.

For Sum Song Zoning, a community officer with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) of Cambodia, the secret to conservation is a good sense of humor.

His audience: monks and farmers, housewives with screaming babies – each with a skeptical look that deepened as the morning heat rose. His subject: the Bengal Florican, an endangered bird few have ever heard of, let alone seen. His task: to convince the lean-looking villagers that, should they ever come across the bird, a hefty five-pounder, it is better to save it than to eat it.

By all accounts, he succeeded wonderfully. There were cheers as he took playful jabs at a monk and teased two bemused old ladies, using humor to impart the value of the bird. Diagrams and posters were marshaled to explain that, as much as they look alike, Bengal Florican eggs are not duck eggs and should be left alone. During the quiz at the end, the 30 or so participants raised their hands with gleeful eagerness, suggesting that, whether or not they ever saw the bird, they were ready to protect it.

“Ten years ago, people didn’t understand the importance of the bird,” says Zoning. “Now they understand that it’s something special for Cambodia.”

Village by village, and province by province, this simple interaction is helping to save the Bengal Florican, one of the world’s rarest birds, by directly engaging the communities that dwell in the bird’s habitat. And in so doing, this approach is presenting a unique model of community-based conservation, observers and participants say.

“This is a model of conservation between communities and conservationists,” says Robert van Zalinge, a field technical adviser for the WCS. “In remote regions, protected areas are set up just based on government decisions, and that is enforced. But here, in an area of high human population, you have a much larger community interface than any other protected area in Cambodia.”

For bird enthusiasts, the Bengal Florican is prized for its rarity, being native to only three countries in the world: Cambodia, India, and Nepal. Today there are believed to be roughly 1,300 left in the world, with about 800 to 900 in the flood plains of Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake, the largest freshwater body in Southeast Asia, according to research conducted by WCS.

To scientists, the bird is unique for its elaborate mating ritual, or display: the otherwise secretive males make hopping loops in the sky, hoping to attract female attention with their striking presence – black bodies set against glaring white wings.

“They’re very difficult to see. But when they display, the male sort of advertises its territory, trying to attract females,” says Lotty Packman, a doctoral student from England who is assisting the WCS to track and tag the birds.

For the people in these stark grasslands, though, where scarcity is a way of life, the bird is a potential source of income or food. By the 1990s, hunting had significantly diminished its numbers.

Today the bird faces an even greater threat: the grasslands of the Tonle Sap, which used to stretch for hundreds of miles, are quickly diminishing as private companies convert land into large-scale rice-farming operations. Almost 30 percent of the grasslands were lost in 30 months from 2005 to 2007, warns a recent report by the WCS.

“At that rate, in five to 10 years, the grasslands could be gone and the Florican extinct,” says Mr. Van Zalinge.

To prevent that, conservationists worked with the provincial governments in the flood-plain area to devise a solution: an Integrated Farming and Biodiversity Area – a protected area that outlaws large-scale dry rice farming, which damages the Florican’s habitat, but allows farmers to continue traditional methods of deep-water rice farming. The latter’s use of grazing and burning supports the Florican by preventing the growth of scrub that destroy the grass patches favored by the birds.

In 2006, a provincial government decree designated 135 square miles of the flood plain a protected area, preserving roughly half of the Bengal Florican population here. So far, the provincial governments have stopped at least two large-scale dry rice projects, according the WCS, suggesting the firm commitment of local authorities.

What makes the project novel is also the level of community involvement. As many as 20 times a month, community officer Zoning and others gather several dozen people in towns throughout the Tonle Sap flood plain. Men and women, young and old: Their participation has helped the Bengal Florican return, like the rest of Cambodia, from a devastating past.

It is too early to say how successful the protected areas have been in increasing the overall population of Cambodia’s Bengal Florican. For now, project administrators say, success means reaching people like Meach Komhan, a farmer in the district of Baray, part of the flood-plain area.

“I had never heard of the bird before,” he says, after listening to Zoning’s presentation. “I really support the conservation, because the bird is useful for Cambodian people as a natural resource. We don’t want to lose it in the future.”

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