In Cambodia, payments to protect an endangered river bird are no simple matter


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.

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