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Plan helps birds, villagers thrive in Cambodia

A five-year-old program protects waterbirds by turning poachers into rangers.

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Picture an airport on water, buzzing with big birds doing takeoffs, landings, and midair acrobatics. Then exchange the roar of jet engines for the peeps of just-hatched chicks: That's what it's like to boat through Prek Toal.

This seasonally flooded forest in the heart of Cambodia is the most important, most prolific waterbird zone in mainland Southeast Asia. A five-year-old conservation program has nearly eliminated poaching and Prek Toal's bird populations are beginning to soar.

Seven rare and endangered birds make their homes here. Take the Oriental darter: "When I started, there were 200 nesting pairs," says Kong Vannak, head of the Environmental Research Station in the Prek Toal floating village. With November's latest hatchlings, rangers have counted more than 11,000 darters, a total greater than anywhere else in the region.

Prek Toal is part of a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve on the flanks of the Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia's largest freshwater lake, with the world's largest freshwater fisheries. It's a remarkable ecosystem: Every year during the monsoons from May through October, the lake's water level rises 30 feet as the Tonle Sap River rushes in. When the rains stop, the river reverses, draining the lake and turning Prek Toal dry.

These waters foster the region's largest colonies of black-headed ibis, painted storks, and lesser adjutants. It also has Southeast Asia's only colony of milky storks, the world's second-largest population of greater adjutants, and the world's largest grouping of spot-billed pelicans. "Combining all these figures, it's hard to overestimate the international significance of the site," says Joe Walston, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Cambodia Program.

It wasn't always so. For years, a thriving trade in chicks and eggs threatened the birds, which locals prized as food for holiday festivals. In January 2001, government officials stopped a boat leaving Prek Toal with 1,400 cormorant eggs. The incident prompted the Ministry of Environment and WCS to establish a conservation team, which now consists of about 25 rangers.

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