5 Aug 2019

One site. Five Critically Endangered birds. Here's our plan

Forget Africa’s “Big Five” - where in the world can you spot five Critically Endangered birds in one place? This year, proceeds from the British Birdwatching Fair will go towards conserving Western Siem Pang, a forest sanctuary home to 70% of Cambodia’s vultures and two of the world’s rarest ibises.

Giant Ibis © Jonathan Eames
Giant Ibis © Jonathan Eames
By Jessica Law

At first sight, it looks like a muddy puddle. But this small forest pool is the hub around which Western Siem Pang’s wildlife revolves. Stare long enough at its glassy surface, and you may see the ripple of a fish, or hear the splash of a leaping frog. Then suddenly, the long, curved beak of an ibis stabs down with needle-like precision, spearing the wriggling creature and gulping it down with relish.

Dotted around the deciduous lowland forest of Western Siem Pang, these small pools, called trapeangs, are a lifeline for two Critically Endangered ibis species. 46% of the world’s White-shouldered Ibis Pseudibis davisoni take refuge here. Looming above them is the world’s largest ibis, the Giant Ibis Thaumatibis gigantea, which towers at more than a metre tall and resembles its dinosaurian ancestors both in appearance and risk of extinction. There are thought to be fewer than 200 individuals left in the world – and at least 20% of them make their home here.

Circling over them are three species of Critically Endangered vulture: the White-rumped Vulture Gyps bengalensis, Slender-billed Vulture Gyps tenuirostris and Red-headed Vultures Sarcogyps calvus. Driven to the edge of extinction elsewhere by poisoning, Western Siem Pang is now home to over 70% of Cambodia’s vultures.

'Trapeangs' are maintained by free-roaming buffalo © Jonathan Eames

It’s clear this forest is worth fighting for – and securing protection wasn’t easy. For a while, plans for a large-scale agriculture plantation threatened to obliterate this site altogether. But in 2016, following tireless advocacy, it was finally declared a Wildlife Sanctuary. The forest became the final piece in a jigsaw of connected protected areas spanning across Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam – one of the largest protected landscapes in Southeast Asia.

Recognition as a Wildlife Sanctuary is an exciting first step – but the challenge is to put the sanctuary’s laws into practice. One of the main obstacles is poverty. Local people may appreciate their wildlife, but if their rice crop fails or they fall upon hard times, hunting or logging is often the only option to lift them out of debt. That’s why we’re working hard to develop wildlife-friendly farming initiatives that offer better earnings and food security.

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A priority is to expand the highly successful Ibis Rice initiative, which we established in Western Siem Pang with the help of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Ibis Rice offers farmers a premium price for their rice and trains them in eco-friendly techniques. In return, farmers agree to abide by the sanctuary’s rules and not to extend their farmland into the forest. At the moment, 350 families – that’s 1,750 people – are part of the Ibis Rice scheme, which has boosted their incomes by 20%. With Birdfair’s help, we hope to involve 100 more families.

“I am happy to be a member of IBIS rice,” says Mr. Thun Kork, a villager of Khet Svay, Stung Treng Province. “IBIS rice encourages me and other villagers to protect endangered wildlife and stop using chemical fertilizer. Most importantly, it helps improve our local livelihoods.”

Without Ibis Rice, this White-shouldered Ibis might have been hunted for food © Jonathan Eames

We can empower the people financially – but to achieve lasting success, we also need to give them a voice. Western Siem Pang already has five passionate and dedicated rangers covering huge distances on urban motorbikes. Some rangers are ex-hunters and are able to identify birdsong even over the roaring sound of their motorbike engine.

This year, we plan to offer formal training to these tireless staff to empower them further. We also aim to work with village forums to improve local people’s ability to engage in political decisions that affect them. We will encourage women, who have formerly been under-represented in these settings, to take part as key stakeholders. In addition, we will continue to run the area’s “vulture restaurants” – safe feeding stations which provide poison-free livestock carcasses.

Looking ahead to the future, proceeds from Birdfair will also go towards training Asia’s next generation of conservationists through our Young Conservation Leaders scheme. Just as a trapeang is far more than a muddy puddle, so a Wildlife Sanctuary is far more than just a name on a piece of paper. When you look beneath the surface, there are many exciting initiatives at play. We hope you will become part of ours.

We are grateful to the British Birdwatching Fair for selecting Western Siem Pang to receive support from funds raised at August 2019 Birdfair. We would also like to thank BirdLife Species Champions Stephen Martin and Giant Ibis Transport, and the UK Government Darwin Initiative for their invaluable support in setting up the conservation and livelihood initiatives at Western Siem Pang.