March 17, 2015 7:00 pm JST
On the brink in Cambodia

Can the world's rarest bird be saved?

DENIS GRAY, Contributing writer

A giant ibis in flight in northern Cambodia: The Zoological Society of London and Yale University last year ranked the species No. 1 on their list of most endangered birds. (Photo by Ashish John/WCS)

TMATBOEY, Cambodia -- Villagers and international wildlife experts have teamed up to save what scientists list as the world's most endangered bird. Despite their pioneering efforts, politics, poaching and people pressure may yet sweep the giant ibis into oblivion.

     Only about 230 mature individuals remain worldwide, according to best estimates of minimum numbers. The birds are making their last stand in the largest remaining dry tropical forests of mainland Southeast Asia.

     The great swath of savanna and woodlands across northern Cambodia once teemed with wildlife -- one biologist in the 1950s described it as "second only to African game lands in game abundance." But hunting, illegal logging, inroads by migrant settlers and government-granted economic land concessions are destroying the region's flora and fauna, hemming Thaumatibis gigantea, the giant ibis, into ever tighter enclaves.

     About 20% of the global population can be found -- and thus quite easily spotted by visitors -- around the village of Tmatboey. There, the U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society has enlisted impoverished residents to protect the species in return for income and other benefits, using an ecotourism program that is attracting bird watchers from as far away as Britain and Japan.

     With its bald, grayish head, long crooked beak and orange legs, the giant ibis can hardly be described as beautiful. But it is Cambodia's national bird and has acquired an almost mythical status among the international bird-watching fraternity, because of its rarity and primeval air.

     Once also found in extensive tracts of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, it was believed to be extinct until a sighting in 1993. Today, it may just be hanging on in small pockets of Laos and possibly Vietnam, as well as Cambodia. Last year, the Zoological Society of London and Yale University ranked the giant ibis No. 1 among the world's 100 most endangered bird species.

Living relic

"It's one of the relics of the era of mega-fauna, which inhabited the northern plains by the thousands," said Simon Mahoud, a WCS staffer who has worked in Cambodia for three years. "It even has a prehistoric look. It doesn't do well in the modern world."

     After finding a remnant giant ibis population, along with the white-shouldered ibis and numerous other bird species ranging from sarus cranes to vultures (Tmatboey translates as "Vulture Bath"), the WCS in 2003 forged a no-hunting pact with the villagers. It erected simple, tree-shaded, solar-powered bungalows and went into partnership with the Sam Veasna Center, an ecotourism operator. The center plows some $50,000 back into conservation efforts each year.

     The villagers, spearheaded by a 10-member committee, have since taken the ball and run with it. About 50 of the 1,200 residents are employed by the eco-resort, but everyone benefits indirectly, since tourism proceeds stream into a village coffer. Last year, the income amounted to $17,000. This has funded roads, wells, school improvements and other development projects, according to committee chief Dib Kim Oun.

     Local guards, who patrol the surrounding area to stop logging and hunting, are also paid from the fund. They stand watch daily over 14 nests of the giant and white-shouldered ibises. Zinc bands, called baffles, are wrapped around nesting trees to stop predators like civet cats and yellow-throated martens. 

     Tourists who spot one or two species donate $30 to the fund. WCS staffers say there is a 99% chance of a sighting for those who stay for two to three days. Like most hardcore bird watchers, visitors have to be willing to get up at 4 a.m., shoulder telescopes and massive zoom lenses, and wait motionless in a humid hide for several hours.

"Depends on the government"

"It's not just the money," said Alistair Mould, a British wildlife biologist with WCS. "The villagers see the need for conservation because they depend on the forest for food and products they can sell when their rice runs out about midyear."

     Dib Kim Oun and his colleagues express pride that their remote village has won national and international awards and accolades, and that the government is keen to replicate the Tmatboey eco-model elsewhere in Cambodia. But their enthusiasm is mingled with fears.

     "Livelihoods are changing," Dib Kim Oun said. "The population is increasing and the needs are increasing. People collect more wildlife. It's becoming tougher than before. Newcomers are coming in and starting to take wildlife and get money, and we old timers sit and ask ourselves, 'How can this happen?'"

     Much of what is happening around Tmatboey is beyond the control of locals. The battle to save the ibis epitomizes a countrywide struggle to ward off massive environmental depredation, often linked to corruption. Wildlife biologists say that failure to protect the habitat favored by the giant ibis would probably spell doom for the critically endangered species.

     Much of that habitat is located within protected areas, including the Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary in Preah Vihear and adjacent provinces. However, long-established but expanding villages like Tmatboey are embedded within the sanctuary, and the government has granted concessions to Chinese, Singaporean and Vietnamese companies to plant rubber and sugar cane there. Additionally, soldiers and their families have been awarded plots of land in the northern part of Kulen Promtep, near the 11th-century Preah Vihear Temple, where Cambodians and Thais have clashed in a decades-long dispute over ownership.

     "We hope the ministers can cancel some of the concessions, but given the power of the 'big guys' in Cambodia, we are not so sure," said Ea Sokha, chief of the sanctuary in Preah Vihear.

     He said forest rangers had been ambushed by soldiers cutting trees and poaching wildlife. And while the soldiers and other gangs are well-armed, the rangers have been forbidden to carry weapons since last year, sparking an increase in illegal activity within the sanctuary. Even if armed, the 30 rangers under Ea Sokha's command could not cope with patrolling 2,380 sq. km of territory, which amounts to 80 sq. km each. Pay is just $80 a month, assuring that some are tempted to accept bribes from wrongdoers. "We try, we try," Ea Sokha said when asked about the chances of wildlife surviving in the sanctuary.

     "It all depends on the government," said Rours Vann, who heads the sanctuary's bird protection unit. "If it supports us, we may be able to conserve more species or maintain those we have. If there is no support, and more [commercial] concessions are granted, then the birds will decrease and maybe be finished."

     As he spoke, two groups of bird watchers arrived in four-wheel-drive vehicles, accompanied by Sam Veasna Center guides. Last year, 164 guests stayed at the bungalows, up from 127 a year earlier. This year, the resort will stay open for the first time through the rainy season between May and early November.

     With barely a pause to rest, the guests set off on a late-afternoon trek across dry grassland punctuated by clumps of trees and watering holes. Birdsong surrounded them and soon they were ticking off "lifers," as serious bird watchers call species seen for the first time. A white-shouldered ibis called from the distance, but darkness fell before a giant ibis could be sighted.

     "It's the joy of birding," said Danny Chester, an Englishman from Kent who has tracked birds on every continent except Antarctica. "You never know what you are going to get. There is a mythical thing about the giant ibis, so it's appropriate that it doesn't render itself too easily."

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