Cambodia Protects Floodplain Grasslands Sheltering Rare Birds

NEW YORK, New York, March 18, 2010 (ENS) – The Cambodian government has decided to protect six of the largest remaining stretches of lowland grasslands in Southeast Asia. The six sites, one in Siem Reap province and five in Kampong Thom province, encompass about 77,000 acres (31,160 hectares).

The sites are located in and around Cambodia’s Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake. They contain unique seasonally flooded grasslands that form a refuge for many globally threatened birds.

Large areas of Tonle Sap grasslands are flooded during each rainy season, supporting a large freshwater fishery. (Photo by Mai Mark)

The grasslands are a fishing, grazing, and deep water rice farming resource for local communities. While most of the sites have been partially protected by a provincial conservation order, they remained vulnerable to land-clearing and dam-building activities associated with large-scale commercial rice production.

The new designations empower staff from Cambodia’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries to prevent these activities.

The designation of the protected areas is the result of work done over the past four years by the Wildlife Conservation Society, based at New York’s Bronx Zoo, in collaboration with Cambodia’s Forestry and Fisheries Administration, local governments and community stakeholders.

As part of that effort, WCS has sourced funds and provided technical advice and management support.

Other partners include the Centre d’Etude et de Developpement Agricole Cambodgien, the Sam Veasna Center, BirdLife International in Indochina, the Angkor Center for Conservation of Biodiversity, and the University of East Anglia.

“Recognizing the importance of these sites as part of Cambodia’s unique natural heritage shows the national government’s great commitment to the conservation of some of the country’s valued landscapes,” said WCS President and CEO Dr. Steven Sanderson.

Among the species that will benefit from the designation is the Critically Endangered Bengal florican, Eupodotis bengalensis, the world’s largest and rarest bustard. The global population of this ground-nesting bird, distinguished by dramatic high jump displays during mating, is estimated at less than 1,300. More than half the world’s Bengal floricans live in Cambodia.

“Traditionally the grasslands around the Great Lake have been communally owned, and a unique agricultural ecology has evolved over the centuries that has provided a niche for the Bengal florican,” said Jonathan Eames, program manager with BirdLife in Indochina.

Bengal florican on the Tonle Sap grasslands (Photo by Allan Michaud courtesy BirdLife International)

The Tonle Sap grasslands, so important for breeding Bengal floricans, have declined by 60 percent since the late 1990s, with the intensification of rice cultivation playing a major role in this loss.

While florican habitat benefits from the traditional low-intensity agricultural practices such as seasonal burning, plowing, planting, and harvesting, illegal commercial rice farming destroys its habitat, forcing floricans into ever-shrinking areas.

The loss of grassland habitat in the Tonle Sap floodplain led to the 2006 designation of 310 square kilometers of land as Integrated Farming and Biodiversity Areas, where large scale habitat conversion is forbidden but extensive traditional use is encouraged.

The conservation groups praised the Cambodian government for the new declaration, which is the strongest step Cambodia has taken to date to protect the habitat of floricans and other bird species living in the protected areas, including Sarus cranes, storks, ibises and rare eagles.

In 2006, the first comprehensive survey for Bengal florican and other grassland bird species was jointly conducted by BirdLife and the Wildlife Conservation Society in the provinces surrounding the Tonle Sap lake. Information gained during the survey was used as a foundation for defining areas to be conserved.

A crude estimate, to be refined, put the Cambodian Bengal Florican population at between 700 and 900 individuals.

Researchers found that the disappearance of grassland habitat in Kampong Thom and Siem Reap provinces was a key reason behind the decline in Bengal floricans. They said the floricans have been disappearing because of large-scale changes in agricultural techniques that have occurred throughout Southeast Asia.

The collaborative project to protect the grasslands of Tonle Sap has been supported by grants from: Fondation Ensemble; the IUCN Netherlands Ecosystem Grants Program; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Wildlife Without Borders – Critically Endangered Animal Conservation Fund; the UNDP/GEF-funded Tonle Sap Conservation Project; and WCS Trustee Eleanor Briggs.

Funding was also provided by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, administered through BirdLife International in Indochina. This Fund is a joint initiative of l’Agence Française de Developpement, Conservation International, the Global Environment Facility, the government of Japan, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the World Bank.

Richard Salter, international team leader for the Tonle Sap Conservation Project, has pointed out that establishing a set of common rules and an effective monitoring system for the sanctuary is a work in progress. He believes that problems of hunting and poaching are declining as local residents see the natural and economic value of preserving the area both as a biosphere and as a tourist destination.

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