Northern Plains, Cambodia

The Northern Plains of Cambodia represent the last remaining intact block of a landscape that once covered most of Indochina. The plains encompass a mixture of forest, grasslands, and freshwater wetlands. The landscape is home to some of the world’s rarest large waterbirds, including giant ibises, lesser adjutant storks, and sarus cranes. Asian elephants, wild cattle, and leopards also roam freely. After viewing the huge herds of wild cattle and elephants here in the 1950s, Charles Wharton described the Northern Plains as one of the great game lands of the world. Wild cattle are still present in the landscape, including endangered banteng and vulnerable gaur.

Remote and sparsely populated, this region was one of the last strongholds of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s violent communist faction. During 30 years of armed conflict, the Northern Plains were completely inaccessible. WCS first began studying the region and working for its protection in 1999. Today, a small human population is dispersed throughout the wild landscape.

Fast Facts

  • The landscape has been called the Serengeti of Southeast Asia.
  • Many threatened mammal species live here, including the dhole, an Asiatic wild dog, and the pileated gibbon, the only ape found in the landscape.
  • WCS works in the region to protect the nests of rare birds, including ibises, adjutant storks, and cranes.

Challenges

Development of roads and expansion of villages and agriculture are growing challenges and may soon be the greatest threat to the forests in the landscape, as well as to its life-supporting bodies of water and salt licks (important sources of minerals). Commercial hunters, as well as opportunists providing local markets with meat and animal parts, pose the single biggest threat to the region’s wildlife. Hunters and fishers sometimes use poison to target game animals, which can make its way through the food chain and unintentionally harm birds and other wildlife. Logging activity threatens the dwindling semi-evergreen forest in the Northern Plains.

WCS Responds

WCS is working with the government of Cambodia to increase the capacity of protected areas throughout the Northern Plains. We are providing local conservation staff with training and technical assistance. WCS is also working with local communities to ensure villagers have sufficient land for their residential and agricultural requirements in order to minimize their impact on the landscape’s protected areas.

WCS also leads the Cambodia Vulture Conservation Project to help preserve this stronghold for three vulture species in Asia. WCS helped produce the action plan for this project in 2005. As part of the project, we have set up “vulture restaurants” that supplement the birds’ diminishing food supply. These feeding stations also enable WCS to monitor the birds that visit them.

Another part of our role in Cambodia is to reinforce the links between conservation and local communities, focusing on the benefits people can derive from healthy forests and the development of tourism and other livelihood options. WCS established the Bird Nest Protection Program, which pays local people to protect rare birds’ nests, rather than taking chicks and eggs to sell. It’s an innovative, inexpensive model of community-based conservation that has led to substantial increases in populations of globally threatened species while contributing to rural livelihoods.

WCS Projects

Birding in Tmatboey, Cambodia

One of Cambodia’s poorest regions is rich in rare birdlife—in particular, the giant ibis and its cousin the white-shouldered ibis. Decades of violent conflict and a remote location kept naturalists and birdwatchers away. But now, birders travel from around the world in the hopes of seeing the ibises and other majestic species.

From the Newsroom

Saving More Than Just Snow LeopardsFebruary 1, 2014

After many years of hard work and trial and error, real successes are being seen in snow leopard conservation, in the Pamir Mountains of Afghanistan and in northern Pakistan, among other places, as communities come together to manage their land and wildlife, and neighboring countries find ways to cooperate across borders. WCS Asia Program deputy director Peter Zahler and George Schaller, WCS senior conservationist and Panthera VP, explain.

Last Bastion for Asia's VulturesJune 25, 2012

With vulture numbers drastically down across the Asian continent, scientists hone in on protecting Cambodian populations, one of the last hopes for these critically endangered birds.

Wild Haven of CambodiaApril 9, 2012

Birdwatchers from across Asia and beyond flock to Cambodia for a glimpse of two of the world's rarest birds: the giant ibis and its cousin the white-shouldered ibis. The birds’ nesting grounds sit at the outskirts of Tmatboey, a rural village where WCS has worked with the community to develop an eco-tourism project.

Bats Are Not Scary, Says Scientist at Bronx ZooNovember 1, 2011

As the namesake of a new species of Southeast Asian  bat, WCS's Joe Walston says that these winged mammals are the good guys of nature. Bug-eating bats aid in the pollination of plants and trees, and are the main consumer of crop pests and mosquitoes.

A Census for ScavengersJune 2, 2011

WCS begins our annual tally of vulture populations in Cambodia. After last year’s record numbers, hopes for these birds are on the rise.

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