In the eyes of many people, bird-watching is a pastime for slightly eccentric retirees or anorak-clad geeks, willing to stake out swamps and forests in all weather, and liable to erupt into paroxysms of gibbering excitement at the sighting of a rare tern or finch. But that hasn't stopped birding (as aficionados, or birders, prefer to call it) from becoming big business, with millions spent every year on gear and travel. It was only a matter of time, perhaps, before someone put birders' enthusiasm to good use.
That's happening in the village of Tmatboey, on the northern plains of Cambodia. Two endangered local birds the giant ibis and the white-shouldered ibis are major lures for birders; other species in the area, including the pale-capped pigeon and the white-rumped falcon, will keep them happily glued to their binoculars for days on end. In fact, dozens of birders are now visiting each year under the auspices of the Tmatboey Ibis Project. They generate thousands of dollars in annual income a fortune in upcountry Cambodia.
The New York City based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) had the idea for the venture in 2005, but it's a locally elected committee that runs the show, requiring birders who spot an ibis to make donations to a community fund that pays for development projects like roads and school facilities. Villagers also earn money from cooking, driving and leading the birders to the ibis, whose numbers have started to slowly increase now that livelihoods depend on them. The fact that Tmatboey can offer only the simplest of accommodation wooden cabins with solar-heated showers is no problem at all to the visitors. "Birders are an ideal audience because they are very focused on seeing the birds and contributing to their conservation and are able to put up with more basic logistics," says Tom Clements, technical advisor to the WCS's Cambodia program. Such spartan requirements mean that priority can go to, say, putting in village water pumps instead of putting up hotels and restaurants.
Encouraged by the success of Tmatboey, the WCS is setting up similarly run bird-watching sites in Cambodia, and there is even talk of, eventually, a safari. Cambodia's northern plains were once regarded as great game lands home to deer, leopards and elephants. Their populations have been brought low by hunting, but if they were allowed five or 10 years to recover, wildlife adventures could become viable. Communities all over the plains would need to understand the value of maintaining the environment but as Tmatboey demonstrates, they have little difficulty doing so once the right structures are in place.
Visits to Tmatboey are organized through the Sam Veasna Center for Wildlife Conservation, which works closely with the WCS in Cambodia. For more information, go to www.samveasna.org.