“What will happen to my home?” If birds think rationally (and there is evidence that they can) then that thought may have been on the minds of a family of Sarus cranes as they stood powerless and watched monster machines destroy their habitat. Sovannarith Thol was there a few years ago: “Many people know that habitat loss is the number one cause of extinction, but they are detached from the reality,” says the Lomphat Wildlife Sanctuary project manager of the BirdLife Cambodia Program. “Witnessing this destruction to birds right before your eyes made it painfully real.”
Sarus Cranes Antigone Antigone (vulnerable) are spectacularly impressive; With a wingspan of up to two meters, they are the tallest flying birds in the world. And they’re in good company at Lomphat Wildlife Sanctuary in Cambodia: the birds here are big. The larger and smaller adjutants Leptoptilos dubius and Leptoptilos javanicus (endangered and endangered) and Green Peafowl Pavo muticus (endangered) also sneak through the swamps, imposing in their own foreboding and beautiful way and all standing over a meter high.
Other vigorous birds such as the white-shouldered ibis Pseudibis davisoni (critically endangered) and the giant ibis Thaumatibis gigantea (critically endangered) – Cambodia’s national bird – sit implausibly in the surrounding trees. At such gigantic sizes, you’d think they’d be easy to spot, but as you’ve probably noticed, all of these species are threatened and their numbers are few.
At 250,000 hectares, Lomphat Wildlife Sanctuary is one of the largest sanctuaries in Cambodia suitable for these thrust-sized birds. It consists of largely intact forests with trapaengs (seasonal watering holes), a popular spot for species like the giant ibis, white-shouldered ibis, and sarus crane to find food. The local people also depend on the forests for everything they need. There are 26 villages in and around the landscape that rely on rain-fed rice, water from the rivers of the forest and fish for protein. As long as the human population is stable here, humans and nature live in harmony. However, recent changes have upset the balance.
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In 2010, the Cambodian government introduced a new land use policy known as the Economic Land Concession (ELC), a recurring threat across the country that allows private sector companies to harvest indigenous forests in industrial plantations from bananas, rubber and other crops to convert. Soon the quiet rustling of rice paddies in the wind and the gurgle of Lomphat’s life-sustaining rivers were broken by the ripping of chainsaws, the screeching of excavators, and the roar of logs surrendering to the forest floor. And when large patches of forest fell, so did Lomphat’s bird populations. Fortunately, the story doesn’t end there. A turning point came in 2013 when the Cambodian government agreed to throw a lifeline to Lomphat and mandate BirdLife to protect it over the long term.
One key to this was zoning the sanctuary into a mosaic of areas. A core zone and nature protection zones have ranger patrols to protect particularly important areas, and community zones help people make sustainable use of natural resources. The land converted by private companies as part of the ELC accounts for about 20% of the landscape where they are still allowed to produce goods such as dragon fruit and bananas, but with much stricter limits.
BirdLife’s Cambodia program is now dedicated to protecting the remaining biodiversity with a focus on three priority species: Giant Ibis, White-shouldered Ibis and Sarus Crane. But you can’t do that alone. To ensure the survival of Lomphat, BirdLife Cambodia works with the local population and the government to ensure that the resources are used sustainably and that the destruction of the forest can be stopped.
A priority was working with the concession workers. The existing private sector farms brought with them an influx of workers who originally immigrated from the Cambodian lowlands and had no innate connection and concern for the land. Many engaged in illegal activities, such as setting traps and traps to hunt wildlife, and combating these activities has not been easy. “When we ask the concession workers not to enter the habitat, some follow the advice and respect it, while others understandably say ‘we need to find food’,” explains Sovannarith. “The problem is that the traps are not discriminated against, even though they mainly aim to catch small birds.”
Several years after the ELC ended, Lomphat’s biodiversity suffered another major blow. Three species of endangered vultures lived in Lomphat: red-haired Sarcogyps calvus, Gyps tenuirostris with slender bills, and Gyps bengalensis with a white trunk. In 2016, however, an ELC employee was blamed for a poisoning incident near the “Vulture Restaurant” (where carcasses are brought in so the birds can feed). Since then, only red-haired animals have been registered in the region. Despite such a devastating setback, there is still so much to protect in Lomphat.
With his team, Sovannarith has worked with the company’s managers to train employees, including events where a video will be shown showing the unique biodiversity of the landscape. Many have changed their behavior, and ex-trappers are now working with BirdLife and the police to report traps in the forest.
In the villages, forest penetration to expand agricultural activity is a major problem, but the communities here are among the poorest in Southeast Asia. They need support and incentives to transform their lives and wellbeing. They grow crops for sale such as rice, mango, and cashew, but market prices fluctuate and cannot provide a secure income. Over the years, illegal activities such as logging and poaching have increased. BirdLife’s work therefore aims to take into account the needs of nature and people by putting sustainable alternatives for livelihood high on the agenda, such as incentives for forest-friendly cultivation techniques such as IBIS Rice (see below).
Through constant environmental education, the local people have recognized the advantages of biological diversity and have been passionately committed to the cause. The Cambodian government approved a Community Protected Area (CPA) in which communities permanently monitor, monitor and manage access to the country’s resources. BirdLife works closely with them: “Before we worked with the community, there was a lot of illegal activity in the CPA, but now there is almost none,” says Sovannarith. “They protect their forest well; They find nests and quarters, take part in bird counts and accompany us in every activity. “
The communities are spreading the word of their own accord and even visiting local elementary and secondary schools to educate the next generation about the value of nature and conservation – something that is not yet on the Cambodia curriculum. In addition, the farmers have direct contact with BirdLife and willingly report on nesting sites and sightings of the three major bird species in their rice fields.
It is human positive work that gives Lomphat hope and allows its large birds to rest in the countryside. The future of our planet depends on people understanding our connection to nature: looking around, confronting each other and asking, “What happens to our home?”
In order to improve the incomes of the local population while positively impacting the local environment, BirdLife has developed a wildlife-friendly rice project based on the nearby success of IBIS Rice at another of BirdLife’s priority locations in Cambodia, the Western Siem Pang Wildlife Sanctuary , is based on a regulation whereby farmers undertake not to hunt, fell or invade the forest and to cultivate their crops organically in order to receive a premium price for their rice. The team has conducted a feasibility study with funding from the BirdLife Forest Landscape Sustainability Accelerator and is now rolling it out at the Lomphat Wildlife Sanctuary with continued support from the Accelerator.
This work is part of the Trillion Trees vision. Learn more at trilliontrees.org