For decades, some of Cambodia's poorest people — residents of the northern village of Tmatboey — hunted birds as a means to survive. And so these Southeast Asian birds, like the white-shouldered and giant ibis, slowly dwindled toward extinction.
But in 2004 the area became a government-protected wildlife preserve. Hunting became illegal, and villagers needed something else to sustain their livelihoods.
Enter the unlikely hero: tourists. Now Tmatboey villagers are earning a good wage hunting birds with binoculars, not weapons.
Eco-bird watching tours around Tmatboey are facilitated through the Sam Veasna Center for Wildlife Conservation (SVC), one of several ecotourism projects that have been quietly growing since the late 1990s, when Cambodia emerged from three decades of war and began to focus on the preservation of its fragile ecosystem.
SVC started its ecotourism project by educating villagers about the importance of the wildlife. "If you don't hunt the birds, people will come to see them and pay you for your services," was the message, says Karen Nielsen, the ecotourism development coordinator.
It's been so successful that former hunters are now employed as rangers or guides. They take pride in showing the birds to tourists because the project has bettered their standard of living. "In the 2006-2007 season, they made over $7,000," Nielsen says.
Considering many Cambodians live on less than 50 cents per day, this is a substantial difference.
Another plus: the rebounding of the white-shouldered ibis and the stabilization of the population of the giant ibis – Cambodia's national bird and one of the most sought-after sightings by international bird watchers.
The SVC facility itself sits on a quiet, unpaved road in the city of Siem Reap, whose popular Angkor Wat temples now draw even more tourists. According to the Cambodian Ministry of Tourism, Siem Reap attracts more than a million visitors per year, and the number of hotels has grown from around 70 in 2004 to a projected 150.
While tourists now fuel the economy of Siem Reap, bringing in tens of millions of dollars a year and generating thousands of new jobs, this growth in visitors is also creating environmental problems like unregulated sewage, trash and pollution.
This lack of environmental responsibility is what the SVC and other ecotourist organizations hope to offset.
A half-hour from Siem Reap is Chong Khneas, a village on the northeast shores of Tonle Sap Lake that most tourists just pass through on the boat ride up from capital Phnom Penh.
But nestled among the stilted wooden shacks is the Gecko Center (short for Greater Environment Chong Khneas Office), where curious off-the-beaten-path types can get a backstage pass to the lake's unique rise and fall during the wet and dry seasons, as well as its fragile ecosystem.
During the dry season the lake shrinks 75 percent, exposing trees and ground – basically a forest that looks like any other. But during the wet season, the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers swell and reverse direction, filling out the lake and flooding the forest until only leafy treetops remain above water. The problems of illegal fishing and overfishing, as well as pollution and cross-border dams, still threaten the lake's existence.