Protecting Nature's Hotspots for people and prosperity

In Cambodia, CEPF Enables Rapid Response to Forest Fire

by Marsea Nelson

 ​ A 2016 forest fire threatened the Prek Toal bird sanctuary and nearby homes. © Sun Visal/WCS

The preservation of the bird sanctuary Prek Toal Core Area, found in the remote northwestern floodplain of Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake, has been a slow and hard-earned process.​

In the mid-1990s, conservationists discovered that the area, covered in seasonally inundated forest, was home to Southeast Asia’s largest waterbird colony. The spot-billed pelican (Pelecanus philippensis), grey-headed fish eagle (Icthyophaga ichthyaetus) and Endangered milky stork (Mycteria cinerea) are all found here, to name a few.

Residents of the nearby floating village Prek Toal had known about the area long before the outside world and were harvesting bird eggs and chicks annually, primarily for trade and local consumption. In 1996, a survey revealed that some 26,000 eggs and nearly 3,000 chicks were harvested during one breeding season alone. Continued unchecked, the practice would eliminate the colony.

  A group of spot-billed pelicans in Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary. © Shankar S./Flickr Creative Commons

For more than 15 years and with support from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), rangers from the Ministry of Environment and the local community have made a concerted effort to protect Prek Toal and restore its bird populations. And over the last 10 years, CEPF has been one of the most significant funders in the Tonle Sap region, supporting projects focused on environmental education programs and species conservation. The efforts worked: The collection of eggs and chicks dropped to virtually zero, and populations of all key species either stabilized or increased.

In 2016, however, conditions caused by El Niño led to a forest fire, threatening to undo that progress.

  A floating house on Prek Toal. © O. Langrand

Small flooded forest burns are normal for the region, but in March, extensive fires began at the northwestern edge of the core area and swept south and east, dangerously close to the waterbird colony.

“Nearby residents said that this was the largest fire in living memory,” said Sun Visal, senior project officer for WCS and Ministry of Environment staffer.

An amendment to an existing CEPF grant to WCS was quickly administered. With these funds, WCS purchased basic fire-fighting equipment for the Ministry of Environment, including water pumps, pumping engines and plastic sheets used to construct water tanks. 

“CEPF funding was vital,” WCS Technical Advisor Simon Mahood said. “It meant equipment could be purchased and local community mobilized.”

 ​Damage done by the fire. © Sun Visal/WCS

Organized by the Ministry of Environment, the community came together to combat the fire—a time-intensive operation that included pumping water from the lake into nearly dry streams and then transferring that water into holding tanks. Local residents, law enforcement officers and a few Buddhist monks from a nearby monastery helped in the effort.​

In early June, the fire had been fully extinguished. There was certainly damage—large areas of flooded forest were burned and some animals had died—but the most important areas for nesting birds were intact.

The biggest challenge now, according to Mahood, is allowing the area to regenerate—the burned ground makes access by more people easier. “We are working with the Ministry of Environment and the commune council to spread messages about protecting the waterbird colony and what remains of the flooded forest,” he said. “More needs to be done to work with communities living on the landward side of the flooded forest, because these are the people who are most likely to degrade it further.”

Restoring the area will take time, but local conservationists and community members have demonstrated they have the patience and determination to do so.