Natural Resource Management in the Critical Habitat of Western Siem Pang



  • BirdLife International


  • 25/07/2011

  • REGION :

  • South-Eastern Asia


  • Cambodia


  • Cambodia's rural populations are heavily reliant on natural resources to support subsistence-based livelihoods. Small-scale rice production and local fishing sustain a large percentage of the population, and forest products are relied upon to provide food and shelter across the country. As resource-driven markets expand however, the pressures on forests, habitats, biodiversity, and inevitably, livelihoods are also impacted. Up until the early 1990's, Cambodia remained off-limits to global markets, plagued by almost 3 decades of war and turmoil. Forestry, broad scale agriculture and extraction industries were therefore slower to capitalise on Cambodia's natural wealth, comparative to many of its Southeast Asian neighbours. Formal natural resource protection was also absent until the early 1990s. Today, Cambodia's protected area network covers over 27% of its land area designated under Royal Decrees dating back to 1993 (Hout, Pech, Poole, Tordoff, Davidson, Delattre, 2003). Remaining one of the poorest countries in the region, on-ground management of its protected area network is limited in both financial and technical capacities and laws governing industrial expansion into these areas are weak. In a rapidly changing economic landscape, Cambodia's biodiversity now faces battles on all fronts: expanding populations continue to encroach into previously uninhabited or very low use areas, opportunistic immigrants from neighbouring nations are also arriving to exploit the wealth of natural resources, and agricultural and extraction industries are being granted sweeping land concessions as the government tries to capitalise on its forests resources. In a number of cases, these economic expansions have diminished available natural resources for subsistence dependent communities. Birdlife International in Indochina - Cambodia Programme (Birdlife Cambodia) has been working with the remote villages of Western Siem Pang (WSP) to improve natural resource management and support basic livelihood activities. Research in collaboration with the University of East Anglia (UEA), is exploring the role of local livelihoods and livelihood activities that impact conservation of the Critically Endangered White-shouldered Ibis. By developing an understanding of the local community’s reliance on the forests and wetlands, the project aims to develop livelihood options and alternatives sympathetic to the conservation of the site's critical species. Preliminary results suggest that there is a strong mutual benefit (biodiversity/community) in the existing grazing system of domestic cattle and buffalo, but these traditional landscape management systems will come under considerable pressure from economic change, especially if the practices valuable to biodiversity become no longer economically optimal. Through community engagement, the threats and stresses to the ecological systems on which livelihoods depend are being addressed, while sustainable management practices are being introduced to help conserve biodiversity and improve local well-being.


  • Cambodia, critically endangered birds, forest wetlands, rice cultivation, fishing, community natural resource management


  • Mr. Liam Costello is the Project Support Officer for BirdLife International's Cambodia Programme. His work in Cambodia focuses on biodiversity monitoring and the development of data management systems for site-based monitoring projects in Cambodia's northern and eastern plains. A major part of his role involves the training of local rangers in the collection and management of baseline data in some of Cambodia's most critical ecosystems. Mr. Bou Vorsak is the Country Programme Manager for BirdLife International’s Cambodia Programme. Vorsak is responsible for overall management and development of the programme of BirdLife International in Cambodia. Since 2006, he has provided technical support to field staff in Western Siem Pang on biodiversity monitoring and community empowerment. Currently, he is assisting the field team in updating the Trapaeng management protocol and enhancing community participation.

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1. General Description and Regional Context

The northern and eastern plains of Cambodia represent the most intact remnant ecosystem of a landscape that is thought to have once dominated southern Indochina and Thailand (Hout et al., 2003). This great expanse of Dry Dipterocarp Forest (DDF), of which WSP is a part, comprises a mosaic of semi-evergreen and evergreen forest patches that harbour some of the most important and unique bird communities in South-east Asia.

The location of WSP is conveniently strategic in conservation value. Nestled in the midst of a protected forest network, the area connects Virachey National Park to the east, and Xe Pian National Protected Area to the west in Laos.  Virachey is also linked in the east to Chu Mon Ray National Park in Vietnam. Together, this trans-frontier protected area covers around 757,700 ha of intact forest and represents one of the most significant wilderness areas in Indochina (Lambert, in prep.). In August 2009, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) proceeded with a sub-decree to establish the Western Siem Pang Protected Forest for Genetic Conservation of Plants and Animals, covering 152,825 ha. While this provides important scope for conservation prospects of the area, the process is not yet complete; threats are ever-present and increasing and long-term management challenges remain.

WSP links a vast protected area network across Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam

2. Biodiversity Values

The biodiversity of the area first attracted international attention when, in 2002, BirdLife International designated the area as an Important Bird Area (IBA) – a key site for globally threatened birds. Indeed, WSP is one of only a handful of sites worldwide that supports populations of an astonishing total of five Critically Endangered bird species (Lambert, in prep.). This includes three species of vulture and two species of ibis. The area has the largest known concentration of White-shouldered Ibis in the world and supports three ‘Endangered’ and five ‘Vulnerable’ bird species according to the IUCN Red List of endangered species.

The majority of the site overlaps with the IBA designated in 2002

Figure 2: The majority of the site overlaps with the IBA designated in 2002.

The conservation significance is not confined to birds as the area supports a significant population of Eld’s Deer (Rucervus eldii), a highly localized Indochinese endemic species, as well as a range of primate species and possibly small remaining populations of Siamese Crocodile (Crocodylus siamensis) and even Tiger (Panthera tigris). To date, more than 100 plant species, 301 species of bird, 30 species of non-flying mammal, 12 species of reptile, 10 species of amphibian and 47 species of butterfly have been identified from within the proposed WSP Protected Forest. Lists of other faunal groups for the area are far from complete, but it is likely that future surveys will reveal a wealth of diversity in fish, amphibians, reptiles and butterfly species (Lambert, in prep.).

One of the most important features of the DDF are the trapaengs, or seasonal pools. Trapaengs are a critical habitat for the area’s biodiversity and a significant element of traditional livelihood practices. They provide water sources and dry season foraging resources for wildlife, and support numerous Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP) collected by villagers throughout the year.

Figure 3: Eld’s Deer, Giant Ibis (Thaumatibis gigantea) and Woolly-necked Storks (Ciconia episcopus) share a trapaeng to feed and forage in WSP (Photo by J. C. Eames)

3. Human use and management – how the site and landscape has been shaped

The Dry Dipterocarp Forest (DDF) is the predominant landscape of the WSP protected area. This ecosystem type is thought to have been influenced by generations of human activity and it is widely believed that fire regimes of native people have converted a once denser forest to the present-day open DDF (Lambert in prep.). Dry season burning is still carried out today to generate fresh grass growth and to aid in hunting and collection of natural resources.

Beneficial human impact on habitats is found in fallow, traditionally-cultivated rice fields that are now important for a number of the area’s waterbirds. These areas, as well as trapaengs, support complex ecological relationships, from tiny insects and amphibians to large birds and mammals. Local people rely on the pools to fish, collect frogs and other food, as well as rearing livestock, mainly domestic buffalo and cattle.  Local people’s strong reliance on trapaengs and the processes of their land management are now an integral part in maintaining important biodiversity functions.

Once abundant, wild herbivores are now rare or no longer present in WSP. For generations, mammals used these pools to feed and wallow. Over time, the effect of trampling and wallowing by large, hoofed mammals across the trapaengs has developed into a highly important ecological function. By reducing vegetation and exposing areas of bare substrate, these disturbed muddy areas become the prime foraging habitats for a number of bird species, including White-shouldered Ibis (Wright, Buckingham, Dolman, 2010). In the absence of naturally occurring herbivores, grazing domestic buffalo now perform this important role, making the traditional livelihoods of local people integral to the conservation of WSP’s threatened birds.

Figure 4: Local communities and domestic cattle rely on trapaeng in WSP (Photo by J. C. Eames and Bun Paing)

4. Characteristics of village livelihoods disappointed

In general, villages rely on wet season rice cultivation and fishing to support their livelihoods. With total family expenditure ranging from 25 cents (1000 riel) to $3 USD dollars per day, natural resource management is an integral part of daily life. Determining when, what and how natural resources are used therefore, can potentially improve management practices and relieve the burden on habitats and species.

To determine local resource use trends, villagers were asked to draw maps to identify community boundaries, infrastructure and major bio-physical landmarks, showing the location of trapaengs and their major uses. Sixty-three trapaengs were identified over the seven villages and are now regularly monitored.

Figure 5: Community consultation and map preparation by local people in WSP. (Photo by Bou Vorsak)

Seasonal changes significantly influence livelihood activities. While the majority of families have land for rice cultivation which takes most of their time during the rainy season (May-December), many suffer food shortages for three months of the year (September to November) when new crops are waiting to be harvested. After the final rice harvests in January, fishing and hunting become the main activities and trapaengs are increasingly utilised for foraging and fishing.

Figure 6: A ‘Season Calendar’ was produced in consultation with village groups to determine when food shortages may be more prevalent leading to greater pressures on trapaengs.

The economic status was determined for the seven surveyed villages and categorised from A to D. Villages varied in their economic status across a range of criteria, with some far poorer than others. In two of the surveyed villages, 53% and 41% of people were in the lowest economic bracket (category ‘D’). Surveys found that all community members use trapaengs for fishing, though wealthier villagers are less likely to rely on fishing catches for their primary source of sustenance.

Figure 7: A survey of the seven villages found only 5% of families lived in the highest economic bracket (category ‘A’), while 25% of families were in the poorest category (category ‘D’).

Villagers were also asked to identify the major threats to their livelihoods. A 25 member panel from a cross-section of the community was established in each village and their primary livelihood concerns were ranked in terms of their potential impact. While results for each community varied, collated data provided the following trends:

  1. Investment and expansion of economic land concessions
  2. Transportation (poor roads and bridges)
  3. Agriculture (lack of technical skills, no irrigation, no agricultural market)
  4. Unsustainable use of natural resources (illegal forestry, wildlife trade, poisoning at trapaengs and channels)
  5. Security (domestic animals stolen and hunted)
  6. Health (lack of medicine and drugs, lack of good quality health centres)
  7. Poor education (lack of teachers, schools, poor retention rate of students and students regularly missing from school)
  8. Domestic violence

Threats to natural resources and agriculture are seen as the greatest issues among all villages. Health, education and domestic violence (which was only raised in one village), were seen as secondary issues where food scarcity and impacts affecting subsistence based livelihoods are commonplace. With such a heavy reliance on paddy land for rice cultivation, land grabbing and conversion of local agricultural lands for commercial production of plantation timber and sugar were seen as the greatest threat to livelihoods.

5. Changing traditions and the future of Trapaeng management

With a population heavily reliant on subsistence from the land and forest products, gradual expansion of human activities into the forest is leading to the decline of the area’s natural resources. As previously mentioned, while there is a general concern for the health and retention of natural resources, the lack of alternative food sources stemming from severe poverty leaves many with few alternatives. Minimising the effects of detrimental harvesting methods is a major priority.

The use of poison in both fishing and hunting is presenting a major threat to critically endangered species. In January 2009, a monitoring team discovered a Giant Ibis that had died from poisoning – this being one of the most threatened bird species in the world and now only found in Cambodia where it is the main attraction to visiting eco-tourists. In 2010, one poisoning event killed 10 out of 12 vultures affected, this being the most serious of all documented wildlife poisoning to date (Lambert, in prep.). The risk of chemical bioaccumulation is also a health risk in humans.

One balancing act will involve the area’s economic development and the potential of mechanised agriculture to replace traditional techniques. In the absence of buffalo and their important grazing effect at trapaengs, there is a real risk of habitat quality deteriorating at the main foraging sites for wetland-dependant species, and certainly White-shouldered Ibis which depend almost solely on food foraged from trapaengs to feed their chicks (Wright 2008).

By far the greatest threat to the area comes from impending land concessions that currently overlap vast sections of the WSP protected area. Proposed investment includes teak and sugar plantations amongst others. This kind of forestry conversion will cause irreparable landscape changes and undoubtedly destroy resident biodiversity and impact on the lifestyle of local communities

6. Working with communities to optimise ecosystem contributions to well-being and biodiversity conservation

Since April 2006, BirdLife Cambodia has been implementing projects aimed at “Strengthening Community Natural Resource Management”. Initially established for the WSP IBA, the work now extends to the objectives of the Protected Forest. The approach has developed ways in which local communities can protect and harvest forest products sustainably. Engaging the community was the first step in advocating natural resource management improvements.

Community-based Site Support Groups (SSG) were established, comprising local stakeholders with a common interest in conservation. In many cases, their participation is voluntary and members become involved because of the economic, cultural, religious, recreational or livelihood benefits provided by the site. Members come from a variety of backgrounds and in some cases are former hunters, and have since traded their rifles for binoculars. BirdLife has now developed networks of SSGs to promote the exchange of experience and skills in conservation.

As a critical feature of both biodiversity and livelihoods, conservation initiatives have focussed on trapaeng protection – minimising their degradation and maintaining their functionality.

With assistance from SSGs, community meetings were conducted with participants from 7 villages. In 2006, over 200 community members attended meetings aimed at introducing new concepts of sustainable natural resource management. The majority of participants were hunters, fishermen or other forest product collectors.

Participants were concerned about the noticeable reductions in ecosystem services, such as reduced fishing yields, and there was a general consensus that natural resources were being diminished as a result of human activity including agricultural land clearing and general over-exploitation. As a result, there was a willingness to engage with BirdLife in sustainable resource management initiatives.

The mechanism to improve natural resource use is being implemented through the development of a Trapaeng Management Protocol. The outcomes aim to meet the needs of the community while ensuring the essential ecological functions of the trapaengs are maintained. Acts prohibited by the communities include:

  1. Use of  poison at trapaengs
  2. Pumping of water from trapaengs
  3. Cutting of trees around trapaengs
  4. Contamination of trapaengs used for catching fish
  5. Trapping of animals near trapaengs
  6. Making noise by using chainsaws near trapaengs

Three species of critically endangered vulture are among the highest priorities for biodiversity conservation in the area. ‘Vulture Restaurants’ are conducted monthly involving the purchase and slaughter of a cow or buffalo. This provides an opportunity to assess population numbers of the three critically endangered vulture species in WSP while delivering an additional, safe food source to the vultures in the absence of previously abundant carrion (from wild large mammals).

Figure 8: A ‘Vulture Restaurant’ event. (Photo by J.C. Eames)

Another priority is the Critically Endangered White-shouldered Ibis (WSI). A Nest Reward Scheme was established to discover and protect nesting sites of the Ibis species. Villagers are offered a small financial incentive to provide the location of WSI nests to the Birdlife field staff and local people are employed to guard and reduce disturbance at nest sites during critical stages of incubation and chick-raising. Roost sites are also monitored with assistance from local people.

With a permanent presence in Siem Pang, BirdLife, in collaboration with the Forestry Administration, will continue to work closely with local communities in education and awareness to maintain the ecological functions that support both biodiversity and livelihood activities of the region.

7. References

Seng Kim Hout, Pech Bunnat, Poole, C. M., Tordoff, A. W., Davidson, P. and E. Delattre (2003) Directory of Important Bird Areas in Cambodia: Key Sites for Conservation. Phnom Penh: Department of Forestry and Wildlife, Department of Nature Conservation and Protection, Birdlife International in Indochina and the Wildlife Conservation Society Cambodia Program.

Lambert, F (in prep) The Biodiversity of the Proposed Western Siem Pang Protected Forest in Northeast Stung Treng Province, Cambodia.  Birdlife International in Indochina – Cambodia Program.

Wright, H. L. (2008) The foraging ecology of white-shouldered ibis. MSc thesis. School of Biological Sciences. University of East Anglia, Norwich.

Wright, H. L., D. L. Buckingham, and P. D. Dolman. (2010) Dry season habitat use by critically endangered white-shouldered ibis in northern Cambodia. Animal Conservation 13:71-79.