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Birding on Bokor

The Southern coastline of Cambodia is a mix of intensive agriculture around islands of undeveloped land.  Outside of the main cities, the population is centered in villages and towns placed along the roads between the rice fields.  The farmers live in small bamboo huts on stilts above the paddies, connected and isolated by red earthen dikes, many constructed by the French in the last century. Rice is the staple food product in Asia and Cambodia is increasing production to sustain its own growing population and for export.  Along the coastline this hunger for land and production is clashing for a driving desire to protect wetlands and mangrove habitat. We travel from Phnom Penh with our friend Rob, a Belgian Doctor of tropical medicine living in Southern Cambodia, to visit the mangroves along the coast. We drive along a narrow highway passing motorbikes laden with rice sacks, or ducking around lumbering trucks transporting goods across the pockmarked highway. We stop in Kampot where Rob has a home on the Kampong bay river in view of Mount Bokor, a dominant feature along this coastline.   
Rob first visited the region as a physician treating Cambodian refugees with Médecins Sans Frontières(Doctor’s without Borders). Since the early 1980s he has worked on various public health and aid projects and never returned to live in Europe; a familiar story for people who fall in love with the people and the land here.  Along the way, he has become fluent in several languages, an expert on Cambodian birds and a passionate lover and protector of the wilderness.

In his Land Cruiser, Rob took us up a winding road to Mount Bokor, a mountain rising 1000 meters above the coastal plain. We drove slowly with windows open and Rob could identify the birds, frequently stopping to photograph them.  Rising in the mists of a rainstorm we stopped at the indistinguishable croak of a Great Hornbill.  This magnificent bird takes flight, spreading huge wings barred with white, ruddered by a long yellow and black tail. Perching on a tall fig tree the bird joins five others. Two males joust as a female impassively looks on before flying off, as others feast on the ripe fruit.  The colors and size make the Hornbill remarkable, but it is the large horny proboscis that gives the bird its name.  Three species of Hornbill live in the Bokor, along with eagles, hawks and scores of colorful birds, many rare or even unique to this region.  Small cats, red squirrels and even tigers live in ever decreasing natural areas.

Along this remote coastline 30 miles north of the Vietnam border, the farmers are clearing vast mangrove forests for new rice fields and burning the wood for charcoal.   

Bokor is a national park but with rules that allow for development. A Chinese concession has allowed for a large casino and entertainment hall to be built, with plans for a development for 40,000 people. Already the land is scraped clear of rainforest and areas laid out in grids for luxury homes.  On a clear day the view must be magnificent, but like today, the mountain is wreathed in clouds over much of the year.  With one long winding road up the mountain Rob wonders who will live in this development in the clouds so far from anywhere (The Swiss?), yet speculator’s dreams financed by the Russians and Chinese are taking root all along the coast.  As in the Cardamom range to the north, these coastal mountains are critical habitat for monkeys, mammals and rare birds.  Although a national park, development and extraction in the parks is having an impact.

With his exceptional photography, Rob is co-writing a book to document the birds of Cambodia and already has an extensive list of over 600 observations including undescribed species. Helping document the presence and range of species will help future planning efforts and with hope, more immediate measures for conservation in this still wild land.
copyright 2013 David McGuire

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