Delicious and Endangered, Waterfowl Thrives in Cambodia

stung sen district, Kompong Thom province – Fifteen km southwest of Kompong Thom town, on a fertile plain abutting the Tonle Sap, villagers plow their fields and raise cattle while waterfowl circle overhead.

As day breaks, a stately Bengal Florican, an endangered bird, roams above the grassland in search of food, filling the air with a subdued chorus of song.

First discovered in Cambodia by wildlife experts last year, the Bengal Florican exists in South­east Asia and the Indian subcontinent. While the long-legged fowl appears to be thriving here in Kom­pong Thom province, elsewhere it is in danger of extinction.

Modern farming techniques and urbanization have cut into the bird’s habitat, leaving only an estimated 1,000 Bengal Florican in existence, said Colin Poole, country director of the Wildlife Con­servation Society, on a trip to Kompong Thom last week to research the endangered bird.

In Vietnam, modern irrigation systems, pesticides and chemical fertilizers have sharply reduced the bird’s population, said Jona­than Eames, program manager for Birdlife Vietnam.

But in Kompong Thom, villagers use traditional farming methods and cultivate rice on floating paddies, creating the world’s best habitat for the Bengal Florican.

“Cambodia is the number one place in the world, and Kompong Thom especially is an important place for Bengal Floricans,” Poole said.

But Bengal Florican is also good to eat, said San Yath, 52, a Stung Sen rice farmer.

“Bengal Florican’s meat is very fatty and delicious,” he said. Both the eggs and the meat of the adult bird make excellent soup and are by far the tastiest waterfowl he said he has eaten.

Villagers were told to stop eating the birds after the rare spe­cies was first documented in the area last year. But when asked if he still hunts them, San Yath nodded shyly.

“I trapped them for food,” he said. “I didn’t know they are going to be extinct.”

While conservationists would like to discourage villagers from hunting the bird, intensive farming techniques and irrigation pose a bigger threat.

During their survey of the area, conservationists saw 10 Bengal Florican on a single morning.

In contrast, there are estimated to be fewer than 50 Bengal Florican in all of Cambodia’s more industrialized neighbor, Vietnam.

“Bengal Florican is going to be extinct in Vietnam,” Eames said, blaming weak and poorly implemented wildlife laws in that country.

But in Kompong Thom, the bird is abundant, said Pol Kham Narei, director of the provincial forestry office. He said just three percent of villagers hunt the bird. “We don’t need to worry too much,” he said.

Kompong Thom Governor Nou Phoeung said villagers would be persuaded to help conserve the bird if they could see how it would help them.

“We have [the potential for] eco-tourism, but if we don’t utilize it soon we miss the opportunity,” he said.

 

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