What is the national bird of Cambodia

Many people certainly associate Cambodia with the temple complexes of Angkor Wat, which, not least because of the two Tomb Raider films, should have come to the attention of the general public, and unfortunately also the reign of terror of the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot. Until recently, however, it was almost unknown that the Southeast Asian state has a lot to offer naturalists and, above all, ornithologists. That only changed when two new bird species were discovered in Cambodia in recent years, the Mekong wagtail Motacilla samveasnae and the Cambodia tailor bird Orthotomus chaktomuk, and so that the country moved a little into the focus of the ornate world.


While the Mekong wagtail is found along some sections of the Mekong in Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, relatively little is known about the distribution of the tailor's bird. The species seems to be restricted to Cambodia. Incidentally, the tailor's bird was first noticed in the course of monitoring measures in connection with bird flu and apparently has a distribution focus around Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. The subsequent search for further occurrences of the species showed that the tailor bird occurs in several places in the greater Phnom Penh area. After its habitat requirements were known - preferably watery bushes as a breeding habitat - and corresponding sites were checked for the occurrence of the Cambodia tailor's bird, further breeding areas could be discovered. Presumably, however, occurrences have so far remained undiscovered.

In the last few years Cambodia has seen a slight rise as a "birder destination" and quite a few bird watchers traveling to the region of Southeast Asia have made a detour to the interesting country. In particular, the activities of the Sam Veasna Center (SVC), an organization founded in 2003 that tries to combine tourism and nature conservation, has made a decisive contribution to the development. SVC sees its main task today in providing financial and material support to the population who live in the country's protected areas, so that the residents' acceptance of the conservation efforts increases and, for example, no more hunting and illegal clearing takes place. The organization generates the necessary money to a not inconsiderable part from the income paid by the tourists for the tours organized and carried out by SVC. In doing so, emphasis is placed on the most nature-friendly way of travel possible and around a quarter of the income goes directly to supporting nature conservation projects in Cambodia. Further information on this and the tour offers can be found at www.samveasna.org.

Water and forest

Probably the best known and one of the most important protected areas in Cambodia, which also benefits from the activities of the SVC, is the Prek Toal Bird Reserve, which is located in the so-called Tonlé Sap, the largest natural freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. The Tonlé Sap is fed by the enormous water masses of the Mekong and is replenished every year, especially during the rainy season. There are some small settlements on the lake, whose houses, farms and fields were all built on bamboo rafts, which enable people to survive despite the strong fluctuations in the water level on the lake. The Prek Toal Bird Reserve is approximately 22,000 hectares. After the rainy season, when the lake reaches its highest water level, only the largest trees protrude from the water masses. On these are the colonies of cormorants, storks, herons and pelicans. The Great Adjutant, for example, is brooding here Leptoptilos dubius, a stork bird similar to the African marabou, which, apart from India, only breeds in Cambodia. Although only about 75 pairs breed here, this number still corresponds to about 15% of the world's breeding population. Likewise, the milk stork has Mycteria cinerea here a breeding area. The largest occurrences of this endangered species are in Malaysia and Indonesia, a small population of 10 to 20 pairs exists on the Tonlé Sap. Scattered in the colonies of the far more common colored storks Mycteria leucocephala are the nests of the rare relative.

The vast, largely intact forest regions in the north and north-east of the country on the borders with Thailand, Laos and Vietnam are of great importance. These regions, which are still relatively sparsely populated, play an important role in protecting many bird species. Especially in contrast to the neighboring forest regions of Thailand and Vietnam, which are only present in a few remnants, the situation in Cambodia is even more favorable and so many conservation efforts are concentrated on these parts of the country, where 15 globally threatened or endangered bird species occur.

National bird giant ibis

Cambodia is of outstanding importance for the two very rare species of ibis, the giant and white-naped ibis. The Tmatboey area, which is located in the largest protected area in Cambodia, Kulen Promptep, plays an important role for both species. The giant ibis Thaumatibis gigantea, has one of Cambodia's and at the same time only two existing colonies worldwide. There are also smaller individual occurrences in other areas of northern Cambodia and in the region of Laos near the border. BirdLife International estimates the worldwide population at just 115 pairs, almost exclusively in Cambodia. As a result, the species has even become Cambodia's popular national bird. From the white-necked ibis Pseudibis davisoni there are only a few remaining deposits in Laos and Indonesia. By far the majority of the world's probably just under 1000 birds live in a total of three regions in Cambodia. In addition to habitat loss, both species suffer from hunting. In Tmatboey it appears that hunting has been stopped. The inhabitants of Tmatboey benefit from the ecotourism that takes place in the area and they know that many visitors come to the area mainly because of the rare ibises. So they have a vital interest in the continued existence of the ibis colonies and could be convinced to stop the hunt. In addition to the ibis, of course, many other animal species also benefit from this. The project seems to be working extremely well, the stocks of ibis species have increased somewhat again. The income from tourism has improved the living conditions of the villagers, so that the village community is now behind the protection project.

Another species of bird that has one of its last refuge areas in northeast Cambodia is the giant Sarus crane Antigone antigone. The population of the Southeast Asian subspecies sharpii is probably only about 2000 animals, which, in addition to Cambodia, is limited to Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam as a distribution area, whereby Cambodia is also of outstanding importance in this case.

In north and north-east Cambodia there are also significant populations of the three species of bald headed vulture worldwide Sarcogyps calvus, Bengal vulture Gyps bengalensis and thin-billed vultures Gyps tenuirostris. Although diclofenac, which is used in livestock breeding and which, due to its toxicity, is responsible for the dramatic decline in vulture populations, especially on the Indian subcontinent, is apparently not used in Southeast Asia, the vulture populations have collapsed here too, mainly due to a lack of food. SVC and its partner organizations therefore organize additional feeding at or near the remaining colonies of the three species. At one of these feeding stations in the northeast near the village of Veal Krous, a so-called vulture restaurant, observers and photographers, led by SVC, can watch the vultures go by in specially built hiding places from a few meters away. In this project, too, the symbiosis of conservation efforts and support of the local population, who in turn benefit from the money brought in from tourism and are therefore interested in protecting the vultures, obviously works well.

The challenge of nature conservation

Cambodia is of outstanding importance for the continued existence of many globally or regionally very rare bird species, although only the tip of the iceberg could be shown here. The wooded regions close to the border, especially in the north and east of the country, which are often still in a very pristine state due to past conflicts and the resulting, still backward infrastructure and lower population density, play an important role. The same applies to the largest freshwater area in Southeast Asia, the Tonlé Sap. However, it should not be concealed here that simply due to the strong population growth in Cambodia and the modernization of the country with corresponding infrastructure projects, great challenges are facing the protection of the unique nature and the birds that live in it. The increasing construction of the Mekong, also on the upper reaches, i.e. far from Cambodia, is already causing problems that are apparently already having an impact on the populations of some breeding bird species on the Tonlé Sap. On the other hand, the activities of the Sam Veasna Center and other nature conservation organizations in the country and also on an international level are encouraging. This also includes the interlinking of nature conservation with the involvement of the population with financial support from nature tourism - a model that is worth expanding in order to secure other areas in Cambodia accordingly.

Stefan Pfützke is a freelance biologist specializing in ornithology. On several trips he has dealt with the bird life of East Asia.