Organised by the Sam Veasna Centre as part of a larger conservation programme administered by the Wildlife Conservation Society, a project at Tmatboey, a village 45 kilometres north of Preah Vihear City, has helped conserve numerous of Cambodia’s endangered and critically endangered bird species.
Originally set up to protect two key species, 42 are now implicated in the project, including the giant Ibis — Cambodia’s national bird — plus the white-shouldered ibis, crested serpent eagles, great-necked storks, rufous winged buzzards, green peafowl, and many more. Thanks to funding raised by birdwatching tours, and ongoing work with the community with the support of government ministries, the numbers for these birds are rising year on year. In a world that seems hellbent on hurtling headlong into destruction of species and environments, this is comforting news.
Moreover, the project is increasingly community led, and villagers cooperate with one another to ensure that even those not directly involved in the programme benefit to the benefit of the birds. Sometimes this may mean paying a landowner not to cut down a particular tree that is used for nesting, at others people are paid to report on new sightings and new locations of the birds. This helps to keep people involved, aware and to spread ownership of the interest in protecting the birds and the habitat on which they depend.
Around the village, rice fields give way to grasslands, open plains and dipterocarp forest that used to cover most of lowland Cambodia. In the early-morning haze, it is a still and remarkably tranquil place.
They allowed us in for an out-of-season visit, to see the site and get a feel for what happens there. We did not take part in a formal tour however, so we didn’t pay the full fee. But from the glimpse we got, we loved it.
The compound is just outside the village, where five huts house 10 twin rooms that are spare but comfortable with mosquito nets on the single beds. The bathrooms are rudimentary but a hot shower is possible, which is serious luxury around this neck of the woods. At the centre of the village, a covered, open-air communal area is where meals are taken, and drinks and stories shared.
The man assigned to look after us, who did it with the utmost good grace despite being under a lot of pressure to deal with another much more important matter, took us out to one of the spotting areas at 05:00. In the short time that we were out there, we were able to see a woolly-necked stork, a rufous winged buzzard, a flock of white shouldered Ibis, and Asian open bills. On the way back a flock of parakeets swooped right past us to complete the experience.
The programme is strictly birdwatching at the moment, and must be booked through the Sam Veasna Centre in Siem Reap. You can’t just show up and ask for a room and a tour. However, they are planning on expanding the programme later in 2015 to include more cultural activities, such as spending a half-day working with a farmer in his fields. It may be more flexible once this is implemented, though we expect that the bird watchers will always have priority. They travel thousands of miles and spend an awful lot of money to catch a glimpse of some of the rarest birds in the world, and that is what this programme is all about.
Nicky Sullivan is an Irish freelance writer (and aspiring photographer). She has lived in England, Ireland, France, Spain and India, but decided that her tribe and heart are in Cambodia, where she has lived since 2007 despite repeated attempts to leave. She dreams of being as tough as Dervla Murphy, but fears there may be a long way to go. She can’t stand whisky for starters. She was a researcher, writer and coordinator for The Angkor Guidebook: Your Essential Companion to the Temples, now one of the best-selling guidebooks to the temples.