A Cambodian conservation scheme

Meak Phoeurn shows off a newly hatched river tern chick at his nest protection site. Photo by: Abby Seiff / Devex

STUNG TRENG, Cambodia — At the tip of a small sandbar jutting into the Mekong, four fishermen unfurl a net, half an eye on the old man lecturing them. In a gravelly voice, 64-year-old Meak Phoeurn informs the group that this is a conservation area, that there is a rare bird nearby and they better stay away from her eggs. He spins around and points to the rolling dunes and high grass and, in a flash of inspiration, warns them there are cameras everywhere.

“Be careful, you’re going to be trapped in the security cameras, ok? You’re going to be in jail, so you better be careful, you never know.”

Later, laughing at his own audacity, Phoeurn says the idea came to him after seeing a drone last year. There are, of course, no security cameras on this wild, uninhabited slip of land. The trick is just one in an arsenal honed over a decade of figuring out how, exactly, to save a vanishing bird.

The river tern was once so common in this part of the Mekong that its eggs could be collected by the basketful. Today, there are about 60 birds remaining in all of Cambodia. Between January and April, the river terns lay eggs on the numerous sandbars that appear in the dry season — directly in front of a string of villages. For about 25 days, until they hatch, the eggs lie uncovered, directly on the sand. Keeping away fishermen, children, water buffalo, and rats is no easy task. 

These days, much of that work falls upon a handful of people like Phoeurn — locals who are given basic training in how to protect a nest from would-be predators. Perhaps most crucially, they are paid a modest sum of cash for their efforts.

In recent years, cash aid has gained traction among NGOs working on everything from disaster relief to education. In the conservation sector, direct payments have been a cornerstone for decades. Payments have been used from everything from stopping poaching in Mongolia to maintaining forest in Malaysia. In Cambodia alone, there are numerous studies on the use of direct payment. But a close look at the nest protection efforts here hints at just how diligent implementers ought to be to ensure such programs work.

A recent study on the impact of the nest protectors by researcher Andrea Claassen, “Effectiveness of direct payments to increase reproductive success of sandbar-nesting river birds in Cambodia,” leaves little doubt of the efficacy of such payment schemes. The threatened bird populations have all risen since 2010, and — in the case of the river tern — the guarded nests fare better than unguarded nests by a factor of 12. The apparent simplicity, however, belies how truly difficult it can be to run a successful direct payment program.

“Overall, nest protection involving direct payments was highly effective, but required diligent use of nest exclosures, frequent monitoring, and strong community relationships,” notes the study, which was published last year in Bird Conservation International.

Every nesting season, Phoeurn and his wife Chin Loam set up camp on the sandbar. They will stay there for most of the four months, relieved, occasionally, by their children and in-laws. Early each morning, Phoeurn circumnavigates the island and checks on the birds. When he finds a new nest, he drives a stick into the ground to mark it and later returns with precisely enough fencing to keep out the rats without scaring off the nesting birds. When the sand and the air get so hot it seems hard to breathe, Phoeurn sprinkles water on the eggs to cool them down. When an egg hatches, he plants branches into the sand to shade the chick. At various times, his wife will take over, his sons or daughter-in-law, and even his young grandchildren. And the family’s vigilance has paid off — today there are at least nine nests on this island, likely the single largest population of river terns anywhere on the Mekong.

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In exchange for this vigilant, seasonal work, two members of the family get paid up to a total of $8 a day by World Wide Fund for Nature, with a bonus for each chick that flies. The five-year monitoring study published in Bird Conservation International suggests these types of direct payment can have outsized impacts on conservation. Between 2010 and 2014, the number of river terns increased and egg collecting plummeted. Nest protectors became ambassadors of sorts, educating neighbors about conservation and enlisting friends and family to report nests and protectors in turn.

“There used to be rampant destruction by random kids; four or five years ago they would come and pick up the eggs constantly. But now people are much more aware and understand about the situation and the laws,” says Phoeurn.

Balancing act

For much of the past 15 years, the lead author of the recent study, Claassen, has been monitoring the river tern and trying to figure out how best to protect its nests. A conservation science doctorate at the University of Minnesota, Claassen has worked closely with Phoeurn and the other nest protectors throughout years of trial and error. WWF manages the program, but it is Claassen who has arguably ensured its success. Each nesting season, Claassen scrapes together funding to come to carry out research in Cambodia, where she also works as a technical adviser at the Royal University of Phnom Penh’s Department of Natural Resource Management and Development. Between January and April, Claassen spends as much time as possible surveying the nesting sites, which are located on a stretch of the Mekong between Stung Treng and Kratie provinces in Cambodia’s northeast. There, she meets repeatedly with each nest protector — learning not just about the state of the bird, but about everything from conflicts over payments to late deliveries of fencing, to village-level jealousies.

“I’m probably too emotionally attached,” Claassen admitted more than once. Though Claassen is a conservationist by training, these days she finds herself not infrequently mediating between disgruntled nest protectors and the organization.

Among nest protectors, complaints over the program are not uncommon.

“I’m so disappointed with WWF — when I report to them, ‘hey there’s a chick hatching’ they don’t care, they don’t bother coming taking pictures. They ignore it. They ignore my report. They don’t pay enough attention to my work,” Phoeurn says. Each year, when Claassen returns, she plays arbitrator, Phoeurn explains. “She’s the only one who reports to WWF about my payment, about whether there’s some mismanagement.”

His son, 40-year-old Thit Phoeung, offered a similar characterization, independently, and a day earlier.

“It’s hard to work with them. When the baby bird hatches and is still in the nest, we report it to them and ask them to come and take photo, they don’t come in time. The bird flies away, they can’t see it [once they do come], and they say we are lying. They don’t really pay attention to what we are doing. They don’t come in time and then they blame us — it’s unfair.”

Sok Ko, who runs the bird nest protection program for WWF, admits there are shortcomings to the program. There are only two people working on the nest protection program, and both have a range of other jobs. “Sometimes we are working at the same time and so we don’t come for a long time to meet the nest protector, and they complain.”

A river tern dives at Meak Phoeurn as he makes his inspection of the birds' nests. Photo by: Abby Seiff / Devex

No small effort

On a blazing March afternoon, Luon Sev, 55, and her 25-year-old daughter Bun Neang sit at a table parked by a small ferry near the border of Kratie province, waiting to get paid. The pair have worked as nest protectors of the white-shouldered ibis, one of five bird species that WWF pays locals to guard. Wildlife Conservation Society also has a program in the area paying turtle nest protectors.

To watch an ibis nest, Sev explains, takes perhaps less patience but more vigilance than river tern protection. The ibis nests in the tree, meaning humans aren’t a threat as much as other birds.

“When a crow finds the egg, it grabs it and destroys the egg — it’s really annoying,” Sev says, growing animated as she speaks. “We use slingshots to keep them away. We have to constantly guard the nest.”

For this work, the pair are paid $8 a day. They get a $15 bonus when the chick leaves the nest; and if the nest fails at any point — if the eggs are taken, or the chicks don’t survive — they receive just $2 a day.

Most everyone in this area works as subsistence farmers and fishers, so the payment can become a crucial extra income, but the work comes with its own costs. To guard a nest well requires a recalibration of daily life, including potential income generators. While the program pays exactly two protectors per nest, often other relatives have to get involved to make it viable. One person must stay at the nesting site while another fishes, or goes to the market, or farms. Children might have to be left with neighbors or relatives, with provisions made for their upkeep. To report the nest and its progress, protectors must pay for phone calls out of pocket. Travel to and from the sometimes remote sites requires gasoline. Neither are covered by the organization.

In order to get paid on this day, Sev and her daughter have had to sacrifice nearly the entire day. They were never contacted directly by WWF, which instead has engaged Phoeurn as a sort of program coordinator — albeit an unpaid one. At 9 a.m., Sev and Neang took their boat to Phoeurn’s, where they initially thought the director was going to visit. He called Phoeurn to tell him he would be meeting people at Koh Preah village after all, and so they rode back over to their home village, 20 minutes away. After several hours of waiting, they learn through another third party that he will meet people later in the afternoon at the ferry — another 30 minute trip, this time through a stretch of the river with nerve-wracking rapids.

Neang loses it, bursting out: “The current is too strong there. I don’t want to go — I don’t care whether I get paid or not.”

Later, a neighbor will explain a route that best skirts the rocks which can damage or even destroy a boat — a costly risk for an unskilled driver. Both mother and daughter eventually determine it’s worthwhile.

“They’re very casual,” complains Sev. “Sometimes, we are told the payment will happen today, sometimes tomorrow, sometimes next week or later,” Neang interjects.

“They tell us to gather in a specific place and then don’t come,” Sev adds.

“I need to work, so I have to put up with it. I have to do it to get the money,” says Neang.

Claassen, no less frustrated, points out that an inexperienced nest protector could well be put off altogether by the situation. Before the pair set off in their boat, she hands them each a dollar worth of phone credit from the stack she keeps on her at all times.

By the time Sev and Neang sit down with WWF it is well after 4 p.m.

The women nervously present their surveys only to be met with a lecture. Mother and daughter, functionally illiterate, have recorded the wrong start date on their paperwork. Both laugh uncomfortably as they’re warned not to make such a mistake in the future.  

Marked improvement

Since the program in the Mekong-flooded forest ecosystem started a decade ago, there’s been marked improvement in bird numbers, according to WWF. The white-shouldered ibis population grew from 121 in 2011 to 134 last year. The lesser adjutant, a large, cartoonish, yellow-necked stork, increased from 10 birds to 52.

The payments, coupled with education, says Ko, are the key to the nest protection program’s success.

“If I [had] come in 2009, they don’t care, they don’t believe [that] protecting the nest they can get more benefit from the protection. But after more years, they have some benefit from nest protection, so they join with it.”

Unlike Claassen, Ko — who was a co-author on the direct payment study — maintains that a close monitoring of the community isn’t particularly crucial. Asking if it’s hard to develop a good relationship with this community, he responds with a laugh. As long as people get paid, he says, that’s what matters.  

“It’s not so hard, it’s easy when we have money — that’s the main thing.”

For those guarding the nests, however, money is rarely the only incentive. In interviews with a range of nest protectors from the project, none cited payment as the motivating force. Many say they want to ensure future generations could still see these birds. Phoeung says he “loves” caring for the tern. “It’s a beautiful bird, and at the same time it’s about to be extinct … if you don’t take care of this bird, it will be a disaster.” Phuong Nov, a 19-year-old who had just started guarding a river tern nest called it “kind of an encouraging thing to do.” One woman, Youe Phan, who just a day earlier began camping out on a sandbar with her elderly husband to protect a river tern nest, says she was so excited that she held a blessing ceremony to bring success to the island.

To Phouern, that lack of understanding about nest protectors’ motives represents the true disconnect. Though Claassen lives most of the year in the United States, her efforts in the field, and what Phoeurn calls “respect” of his work as a nest protector, have done far more to convince him to stay on with the program than anything else. Over the course of days, he often and loudly threatens to stop working should Claassen be unable to return.

“The organization doesn’t pay attention to details, I don’t feel connected to them,” he says. “I just feel discouraged — that’s why I’m hopeless and I want to quit when Andrea isn’t around.”

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And yet for many, particularly the elderly and vulnerable, the work remains important simply as a rare chance to earn a modest living. Sixty-six years old and impoverished, Phan has struggled to support her deaf, 85-year-old husband. “I’m getting old, I cannot do anything else. It seems like good work for old people like us. It’s good labor and simple,” she says. Her niece offered her the job, says Phan, arranging for them to guard a nest on a sandbar that had proven notoriously difficult to protect in the past. The promise of work, any work, was thrilling. “I was so excited, I was rushing to grab clothes to come here immediately.”  

Additional reporting and translation by Len Leng. This project was funded by an Earth Journalism Grant.