The local villagers along Cambodia’s Sangke River who once stole eggs from the nests of endangered birds now protect those same species. February 2016 marked the 15th anniversary of the creation of Prek Toal bird sanctuary, located in the northwest part of the river in Battambang province, in northwestern Cambodia. The Prek Toal area is populated by a distinctive community of floating homes, schools, and general stores, and also happens to be the most important breeding ground in Southeast Asia for globally endangered waterbirds like the greater adjutant, masked finfoot, and spotbilled pelican.
Until its fall in 1979, the Cambodian communist regime, the Khmer Rouge, controlled the Prek Toal region and severe poaching of bird eggs for food began when villagers returned. However, the number of birds in Prek Toal has increased dramatically thanks to conservationists who’ve trained former egg thieves to report sightings of poaching in exchange for community development incentives like money for fish farming and restaurant development. Over the past 15 years, the spot-billed pelican population has grown from 200 to 1,000 birds, and the greater adjutant from 20 to 300 birds. During Prek Toal’s dry season, December through May, birdwatchers from all over the world can take guided boat tours through the sanctuary and witness an abundant avian diversity worth saving.
Appeared in the August 2016 issue as “Free As A Bird”.