Big birds got a big boost in Cambodia, where a new protected area will safeguard six of the largest remaining tracts of lowland grassland in Southeast Asia. The wildlife-rich sites, located in and around the Tonle Sap floodplain, are a refuge for the rare Bengal florican and other globally threatened birds. In addition, the grasslands provide a fishing, grazing, and deep-water rice farming resource for local communities.

“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 Steven Sanderson.

The six sites include one in Siem Reap province and five in Kampong Thom province, comprising a total of 76,996 acres of habitat. Provincial conservation orders had offered some protection to these areas but large-scale commercial rice production made them vulnerable to land-clearing and dam-building activities. With these new designations, staff from Cambodia’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries are empowered to prevent such destructive land-use practices.

Among the species benefiting from the designations is the endangered Bengal florican. Fewer than 1,300 of these large, ground-nesting birds remain in the world. More than half of them live in Cambodia.

Traditional, low-intensity agricultural practices, such as seasonal burning, plowing, planting, and harvesting, help support the needs of the florican in the wild. Illegal commercial rice farming, however, destroys its habitat, forcing floricans into ever-shrinking areas. The new declaration represents the strongest step Cambodia has taken to date to protect the habitat of this and other species living in the protected areas – including Sarus cranes, storks, ibises, and rare eagles.

WCS worked in collaboration with Cambodia’s Forestry and Fisheries Administrations, local governments, and community stakeholders to strengthen the areas’ management of natural resource. The protected area designations resulted from this endeavor.

As part of that effort, WCS sourced funds and provided technical advice and management support. Other partners involved in this effort include the Centre d’Etude et de Développement Agricole Cambodgien (CEDAC), the Sam Veasna Center (SVC), BirdLife International in Indochina and the Angkor Center for Conservation of Biodiversity (ACCB), and the University of East Anglia.

The collaborative project 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; WCS Trustee Ms. Eleanor Briggs; the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, administered through BirdLife International in Indochina and which is a joint initiative of l’Agence Française de Développement; Conservation International; the Global Environment Facility; the Government of Japan; the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; and the World Bank.