Another day, another pitch-black pre-dawn on the Northern Plains of Cambodia. It was 05:45 as we walked through an area of open-canopy forest near the village of Prey Veng. We were here for one reason: hoping to see one of the world’s rarest birds at roost. The guide from the local village and Sophoan, who had accompanied us from Siem Reap, stopped ahead of us. No words were necessary. We knew we had arrived. Now it was just a question of waiting silently for first light – and hoping for the best.
In time, the silhouette of a distant tree became imprinted on the lightening eastern sky, and on its upper branches were two Giant Ibis. It was impossible to make out many features apart from their long decurved bills and huge size, but we were treated to a tremendously evocative experience as they began to call, initiating a response from a third (unseen) bird. After a few minutes all three flew off for a day’s feeding. Although we were to have better views a couple of days later it is this memory that will remain with me forever.
Giant Ibis is Cambodia’s national bird. Now extinct in most of its former range, it has been reduced to two core areas on the Northern Plains of Cambodia. Recent surveys put its breeding population at just 115 pairs, with a world population of maybe 345 individuals. It has suffered from hunting (it is a very big bird!), deforestation and disturbance. In the dry season it feeds in the mud of waterholes, which in the past were maintained by large wild mammals. The dramatic reduction of the mammalian megafauna has seen many of these feeding places dry out, so creating another problem. But there is hope ...
Engaging local communitiesAmong a number of creative conservation initiatives undertaken by the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Cambodian partner the Sam Veasna Centre, is the Ibis Rice project. This rice is grown by farmers in the forests where Giant Ibis and its critically endangered near-relative White-shouldered Ibis breed and feed. In exchange for not hunting ibis and not clearing the forest, village farmers are offered training on increasing rice yields organically, their rice is marketed and they receive a premium price for it. Additionally, visitors pay to see and photograph the birds, with their cash going directly to village committees for projects ranging from wells to schools. Villagers are also trained to become wildlife guides. With a growing human population in the dry dipterocarp forest where the ibis live, there are still huge land-use pressures, but more families are signing up to the Ibis Rice project and there are signs that ibis numbers are on the up.
There are other reasons for ensuring Cambodia’s dry dipterocarp forest is conserved. There is, of course, that other critically endangered ibis, the White-shouldered, whose population is a little larger than that of its big cousin – but not by very much. The easiest place to see this species is Tmatboey, another community that is actively engaged in conservation.
Then there is an amazing diversity of woodpeckers, including White-bellied, Streak-throated, Great Slaty and Black-headed. Birds as varied as Rufous-winged Buzzard, prinias, cuckooshrikes, bee-eaters and babblers can be found with ease, while ultra-graceful Crested Treeswifts glide over the canopy. Rare, and stunning, White-rumped Falcons require more effort. The forest also provides a home for Asian Elephants, wild cattle (Banteng and Gaur) and Leopards. Surely all worth saving for future generations?
Oh, and in case you were wondering, the rice is very good, too!