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.
Tonle Sap: The Disappearing Lake Experience
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.
As in other areas of the country, many of the lake's poor villagers poached bird eggs and chicks in order to survive, which began endangering species. But a French organization called Osmose has introduced ecotourism on the lake, and former poachers now work as guides.
Eco-Tours in the Floating Village
Just a two-hour boat ride west from Chong Khneas across the lake is the floating village of Prek Toal and the government-protected bird sanctuary. For optimal bird viewing times in early morning or dusk, visitors can stay overnight at the Prek Toal environmental station for a nominal fee.
Once inside the bird sanctuary, tourists spot rare and endangered birds not seen in any other parts of the world, including the painted stork, the spot-billed pelican and the grey-headed fish-eagle.
Like the guides of Tmatboey, years of poaching have made the rangers experts at uncovering wildlife. According to Osmose ecotourism developer Nick Butler, "They knew where the nests were, and they knew what time of year the birds would lay eggs."
But now that they're earning a better wage, poaching has almost been eliminated. And so far this eight-year conservation program has been a success. Many of the bird species – still endangered, but now protected – are making a comeback.
For example, Butler points to the Oriental darter, whose population improved eight-fold from 2002 to 2005. But, he also warns, "it's been a localized success story, [and the fate of the birds and the lake is] still very much in the balance."
Ecotourism in Cambodia is still "very much in its infancy," adds Butler. "It's a few small operations dotted around the country with no real coordination."
But since the Ministry of Tourism projects the number of tourists will double or triple in the coming years, Nick Butler and Karen Nielsen hope that ecotourism will mirror that growth.