Urgent Action Badly Needed to Save Threatened Riverine Bird

Action came too late to prevent animals such as the kouprey and the tiger, as well as birds like the Indian Skimmer and Black-bellied Tern, from becoming extinct in Cambodia. This is a lesson that needs to be learned to prevent other species being wiped out too.

The River Tern is a beautiful fish-eating bird with a yellow bill that, as its name suggests, occupies river areas. Data indicates that Cambodia’s River Tern population has declined dramatically since 2003. According to the author of the “Birds of Cambodia Annotated Checklist,” Frederic Goes, there are no longer any River Terns breeding along the Mekong River below Kratie. Consequent research has also shown that the bird is moving closer to extinction on the Sesan River, where it has declined from 53 of the birds recorded in 1998 to 34 birds in 2003 and eight birds in 2010. This year, when I assisted conservation biologist Andrea Claassen on a survey of the river, there was just one River Tern living there. Similarly, the decline is ongoing on the Sekong River in Stung Treng province, where the number of the birds has dropped from 71 in 2000 to between 38 and 40 in 2003, to eight recorded in both 2010 and 2015.

Without urgent action the River Tern is likely to suffer the same fate as two other riverine fish-eating birds in Cambodia—the Indian Skimmer and Black-Bellied Tern —both of which can no longer be found in the country. It is estimated that the population of River Tern   in Cambodia is now probably less than 100 individuals, located in the area of the Mekong River in Stung Treng and the Sekong River. The main threats to the River Tern are thought to be collection of eggs by villagers, fish scarcity, animal predators, water-level fluctuation on the Sesan River caused by a hydroelectric dam in Vietnam and buffalos stepping on their nests.

I believe we need more conservation work to prevent this species of river bird from becoming extinct in Cambodia, and I call on all stakeholders to come together to participate in their protection.

Suy Senglim is an avid birdwatcher who is working to protect birds through his project Birds of Cambodia Education & Conservation.

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