Hunters become rangers, and birds recover

Cambodia Bird Conservation
These birds are among the 20,000 that live inside Cambodia's Prek Toal bird sanctuary.Wildlife Conservation Society via AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The populations of seven species of rare water birds have recovered significantly in Cambodia's Tonle Sap lake due to a program that employs former hunters as park rangers, conservationists said Thursday.

A report by the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society found the populations have increased by as much as 20 times for some of the species since 2001, when the program started.

The findings mark a "success story" in efforts to protect the bird colonies from poachers, said Noeu Bonheur, the Cambodian Environment Ministry's deputy director of the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve.

"It is definitely exciting news that we should be proud of," he said.

His office and the WCS have worked together for several years on a conservation project at Prek Toal, a flooded region on the northwestern edge of the Tonle Sap.

The lake is Southeast Asia's largest freshwater reservoir, which can expand to 4,630 square miles at the peak of the rainy season and recede to about 1,160 square miles in the dry season. It is rich in biodiversity and provides a breeding ground for many species of birds and fish.

The WCS report, released earlier this week, said the Prek Toal bird colonies hold the largest — and in some cases the only — breeding populations in Southeast Asia of the seven globally threatened large water bird species.

15,000 more birds
The species are the spot-billed pelican, milky stork, painted stork, lesser adjutant, greater adjutant, black-headed ibis and the Oriental darter. There were over 20,000 birds in 2007, compared to 5,000 in 2001, the report said.

All seven species are listed as "threatened or near-threatened" by the World Conservation Union, Tom Clements, a WCS technical adviser in Cambodia, said in an e-mail Thursday.

"Prek Toal is the most important large water bird breeding colony in Southeast Asia. In some cases, Prek Toal supports up to 30 percent of the global population," Clements said.

When the colonies there were discovered in the late 1990s, they were threatened with extinction as a result of villagers' rampant harvesting of eggs and chicks, the report said.

But during the past seven years, a colony protection and monitoring program has resulted in a gradual decline in poaching incidents, allowing the birds to stage "remarkable comebacks," the WCS said.

The program employs some 30 park rangers, many of whom are former poachers, who work in shifts around the clock to monitor the bird populations.

"The approach was extremely effective," Clements said.

He said some of the hunters who were not employed did try to collect the birds' eggs and chicks in the early years of the project, "but since 2004 this threat has effectively ceased."