Storks, pelicans, ibises, and other rare waterbirds from Cambodia’s famed Tonle Sap region are making a comeback, thanks to round-the-clock protection by a single team of park rangers. In a project established by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Ministry of Environment of the Royal Government of Cambodia, former hunters and egg collectors have found new employment in monitoring the breeding bird colonies. This novel approach guarantees an active role for local communities in the conservation of this important seasonally flooded wetland.

A new report shows that some of the waterbird species have rebounded 20-fold since 2001, when the conservation project began. Before that time, rampant harvesting of eggs and chicks had driven the colonies to the brink of local extinction. “This is an amazing success story for the people and wildlife of Cambodia,” said Colin Poole, director for WCS-Asia. “It also shows how important local people are in the conservation of wildlife in their own backyards.”

Researchers first discovered the bird colonies in the mid-1990s in Prek Toal, an area within the massive Tonle Sap (which means Great Lake). According to WCS scientists, the colonies include the largest, and in some cases, the only breeding populations of seven Globally Threatened large waterbird species in Southeast Asia. All seven have increased from a total of 2,500 breeding pairs in 2001 to 10,000 pairs in 2007.