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Protected spot-billed pelicans flock together in Cambodia's Prek Toal sanctuary. (Photograph by Terry Whittaker)

Free as a Bird in Cambodia

The local villagers along Cambodia‘s Sangke River who once stole eggs from the nests of endangered birds now protect those same species.

February marks the 15th anniversary of the Prek Toal bird sanctuary, located in the northwest part of the river. The Prek Toal area is populated by a distinctive community of floating homes, schools, and general stores, and also happens to be the most important breeding ground for globally endangered waterbirds in Southeast Asia.

The Cambodian communist regime, the Khmer Rouge, controlled the Prek Toal region until its fall in 1979, and severe poaching of bird eggs for food began when villagers returned.

However, the number of birds in Prek Toal has increased dramatically thanks to conservationists who’ve trained former egg thieves to report sightings of poaching in exchange for community development incentives like money for fish farming and restaurant development. Over the past 15 years, the spot-billed pelican population has grown from 200 to 1,000 birds, and the greater adjutant from 20 to 300 birds.

During Prek Toal’s dry season, December through May, bird-watchers from all over the world can witness the abundant avian diversity worth saving.

This piece, written by Adrienne Jordan, appeared in the February/March 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.

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