British Birdwatchers to Protect Cambodian ‘Big Five’

On the same day it was revealed that the total amount raised by the British Birdwatching Fair for conservation has passed the £5 million mark, the event dubbed the ‘Glastonbury of Birding’ revealed this year’s project: protecting Western Siem Pang, a haven for five Critically Endangered bird species.

By Alex Dale

You’ve heard of Africa’s Big Five – now ready your binoculars for Cambodia’s Big Five.

Follow the tracks of the swamp-dwelling Giant Ibis Thaumatibis giganteaby far the world’s largest ibis, as it casts an imposing shadow over the shallow waters in which it forages. Prime your ears for the mournful call of the White-shouldered Ibis Pseudibis davisoni, a gargantuan wader with a taste for invertebrates lurking in cracks in the dry ground; cracks this birds’ powerful down-curved bill is easily able to infiltrate.

And then, circling overhead ominously, could be any one of three species of Critically Endangered Asian vulture; White-rumped Vulture Gyps bengalensis, Slender-billed Vulture Gyps tenuirostris or Red-headed Vulture Sarcogyps calvus. These iconic scavengers have been brought to the edge of extinction by the widespread use of a veterinary drug administered to cattle but lethal to vultures who later feast on their carcasses.

Five fantastic beasts of the avian kind; each spectacular enough to make even a seasoned birder sing. And the fact that all five are Critically Endangered – thus putting them among the rarest and most threatened species in the world – only adds to their mystique.

Normally, you’d have to travel far and wide for a chance of glimpsing five Critically Endangered species – but there is a place with one of the highest concentrations of globally threatened species in the world, where all the above can be found. That place is Western Siem Pang, Cambodia, a sprawling expanse of deciduous and semi-evergreen forests, through which the Sekong River flows. However, this vital forest habitat is under dire threat from the spread of human activity, such as land clearance, persecution and the grazing of livestock. Prior to 2016, the threat of a large-scale agriculture plantation could have obliterated this site altogether. Thankfully, BirdLife’s advocacy helped to get it declared a Wildlife Sanctuary and put a stop to the plans for a land concession.

However, the battle is not won yet. “Even with this new legal protection, there’s a lot more to do,” says Bryna Griffin, head of BirdLife’s Forests Programme. “It’s critical that we support the Ministry of Environment to ensure the protected area is managed effectively.  That includes helping to develop a zoning plan for the huge new site, and making sure ranger teams are well trained and organized.”Subscribe to Our Newsletter!

But it won’t just be about laying down the law. This year’s project will seek to build a sustainable future for this irreplaceable habitat by engaging local communities living around the forest who are dependent on its resources for their own livelihoods, and empowering them to shift to more environmentally-friendly practices. This work includes the expansion of existing wildlife-friendly farming initiatives – for example Ibis Rice, which offers farmers premium prices for their rice crop in return for a ‘no hunting, no logging, no encroachment’ pledge.

Wildlife-friendly farming initiatives give local people better livelihoods © Jonathan Eames
Wildlife-friendly farming initiatives give local people better livelihoods © Jonathan Eames

These efforts will be accompanied by monitoring and conservation activities designed to help us better understand the ecology of these species, and how they are affected by encroachment, so we can more effectively protect them in the future.

 This ambitious project follows in the footsteps of last year’s ‘Mar Chiquita – A Haven for Argentina’s Flamingos’ project, for which Birdfair raised £322,000 towards the creation of what will become Argentina’s largest National Park.

Tim Appleton, Birdfair founder and manager, said: “Thanks to the 23,000 people who came along last August, we’ve been able to make a huge difference to bird conservation in Argentina. It’s always good to know when you book your place at Birdfair you’re part of something big, and every single attendee really is making a difference for nature.”

Patricia Zurita, BirdLife CEO, said: “This event has always excelled in raising vast amounts of money to fund vital conservation work around the planet, and last year’s 30th Birdfair carried on this brilliant tradition. We’re incredibly grateful and look forward to updating Birdfair attendees on progress with this exciting project.”

Since its formation in 1989, the British Birdwatching Fair has donated its proceeds to a global project chosen and managed by BirdLife International. In total, the fair has now raised over five million GBP towards conservation causes. Last year, Birdfair celebrated its 30th anniversary and to celebrate, we recapped the first 30 years of Birdfair-funded projects, all of which continue to this day.


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