Conservationists in Cambodia think they may be turning the corner in their fight to save one of the world's rarest birds.
The Bengal Florican, known in Cambodia as "the whispering bird," is remarkable for a male mating display that amounts to a dance competition to attract a mate.
Since 2005, a rush to turn grasslands into large-scale rice farms has gobbled up one-third of the Bengal Florican's habitat in Cambodia, threatening the critically endangered bird with extinction.
Now, a land protection plan devised by the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, along with British-based BirdLife International and Cambodian authorities, appears to be slowing this controversial real estate grab.
Most of the world's Bengal Floricans, believed to number less than 1,000, live in scattered pockets on the fringes of Cambodia's Great Lake. The rest are in India, Nepal and Vietnam.
135 square miles off limits
The Cambodian program to protect Florican habitat bans development in five zones totaling 135 square miles. Villages and farms within the zones can remain, preserving traditional ways of life. Police patrol by motorbike during the dry season and by boat when floods come.
Since the program was adopted, three planned developments have been canceled and another put on hold, says Tom Evans, a Wildlife Conservation Society technical adviser in Cambodia.
"Some prospective developers have been deterred at an earlier stage when they learned that the areas had a special designation," he added.
More such zones, dubbed Integrated Farming and Biodiversity Areas, are planned.
In mid-March, the height of the dry season, the grasslands near Great Lake are at their bleakest. They stretch to the horizon, brown and flat under the blazing sun, with barely a tree to break the monotony. Smoke curls into the air where farmers burn off scrub to rejuvenate pasture for their cattle. Ox carts trundle down deeply rutted tracks. An occasional motor vehicle kicks up clouds of dust.
But for the patient and the sharp-eyed, this landscape offers a sight to behold: the courtship display of the male Bengal Florican.
The bird, a black-and-white bustard that looks like a small ostrich, struts into a clearing, stretches its long neck and ruffles up its feathers. Then, it flits into the air before fluttering back to the ground in an undulating pattern, like a parachutist caught in a crosswind.
As it descends, it emits a deep humming sound that has earned it its Cambodian name, "the whispering bird." The displays are usually carried out within sight of other males, in what amounts to an open dance competition to attract a mate.
Expert: 'Race against time'
"They're really unique," says Lotty Packman, a 24-year-old researcher from the University of East Anglia in England. "They're very striking and very charismatic."
Packman was spending long days in the heat, netting Floricans and attaching tracking devices to learn more about them, especially the elusive female of which very little is known.
"You can't conserve it if you don't know its natural history," Packman said after tagging and releasing a male with a solar-powered transmitter that will send back data every two days. "It's a race against time."
The species was rediscovered in Cambodia in 1999. Until then, the country's decades-long civil war had made detailed exploration of the countryside too dangerous.
But peace has proved to be a far greater threat.
Businessmen have snapped up thousands of acres of land in often murky deals and built more than 100 strip dams, which turn the grassland into emerald-green rice paddies that can produce rice during the dry season.
Conservationists have worked hard to win the villagers' support, but despite the restrictions on development, a new plantation has been laid out in one zone and preparations have been made for another. Signs marking the protected areas have been knocked down — it's not clear by whom.