Sikol San freezes mid-sentence. The guide’s eyes dart towards the tuft of a coconut tree on the edge of a rice field. He adjusts his spotting scope to hone in on a small black bird with a forked tail perched on a palm. The co-founder of the Cambodia Bird Guide Association (CBGA), Sikol San starts relating details about the migratory black drongo, which spends September to May in Cambodia. It is one of 40 to 60 species of bird regularly seen at this rural patch of land on the outskirts of Siem Reap, he says. In the foothills of Phnom Krom mountain, about 12km from the city, the site is a popular stop on CBGA’s half-day birding tours. Habitats here include wetlands, rice fields, lotus ponds, tall trees and shrubs, all of which attract varied species. Home to a recorded 636 species of bird – including two endemic, seven critically endangered, and more than 27 threatened – Cambodia is a magnet for serious twitchers. The country is preening itself to welcome flocks of nature lovers, with avitourism predicted to be popular with the world’s travel-thirsty ecotourists in the wake of Covid-19. According to a recent report by the Centre for Responsible Travel, birdwatching is among the fastest-growing trends in eco-tourism . Tropical and developing countries have the potential to cash in on this expected trend. Cambodia provides breeding grounds for a range of birds, of which about half are migratory, across habitats that include flooded forests, Indochina’s largest intact dry deciduous forest, sprawling rice fields, vast lakes and waterways, coastline, mangroves and low- and high-altitude evergreen forests. With sustainable, nature-based holidays to remote places expected to be in high demand once borders reopen, the country’s wealth of birdwatching spots stand it in good stead. “We have serious birdwatchers who come because they want to see the rarest bird in the world,” says Mardy Sean, a guide at Sam Veasna Conservation Tours (SVC), which has been hosting half- to 24-day birding and wildlife adventures since 2006. “We also have what we call nature lovers, who simply want to experience the wild, and we hope to see more of these when tourism is allowed.” Cambodia’s national bird, and one of the world’s rarest, is the giant ibis, a wading bird that stands a metre high. It was believed to be extinct, having remained unrecorded for more than 50 years, until 1993, when Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) researchers discovered a small group on the country’s Northern Plains. Today, an estimated global population of fewer than 300 lives mainly there and on the Eastern Plains. Why Hong Kong in April is a birdwatcher’s paradise “The first thing most tourists want to see when they come to Cambodia is Angkor Wat. For a serious birder, it’s the giant ibis,” says Mardy Sean. “They spend thousands of dollars to come to Cambodia to see three species: the giant ibis, white-shouldered ibis and Cambodian tailorbird [a small bird discovered in a single patch of shrub land on the Mekong floodplain in 2009].” The most important conservation areas in Cambodia include Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary, in Preah Vihear province, which is a breeding ground for giant and white-shouldered ibis. Pale-capped pigeons, black-headed woodpeckers and brown prinia are among the other species found here. The Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary, in the Tonle Sap flooded forest, close to Siem Reap, is Southeast Asia’s largest waterbird colony. Visitors flock here to view more than 100,000 pairs of storks, plus pelicans, egrets, ibises and herons. The Bengal Florican Conservation Areas, in the seasonally flooded grasslands of Kampong Thom and Siem Reap provinces, boast the largest known number of Bengal floricans – a critically endangered species of bustard – with more than half of the global population of fewer than 1,000. The sarus crane, the world’s tallest flying bird, standing up to 1.8 metres high, can also be seen here. At the Chheb Wildlife Sanctuary, also in Preah Vihear, three critically endangered species of vulture – red-headed, white-rumped and slender-billed – can be spotted, alongside black-headed woodpeckers, rufous-winged buzzards and white-rumped pygmy falcons. As well as green peafowl, great hornbills and orange-necked partridges, the Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary, which spans Mondulkiri and Kratie provinces, is home to one of the largest concentrations of woodpeckers in the world, with SVC having recorded 16 species. Habitats in the protected area range from bamboo and dry dipterocarp forest to evergreen forest, making Keo Seima one of the country’s most important reserves for monkeys, lorises and primates, including the world’s largest population of critically endangered black-shanked douc, a species of langur with a blue-grey face. While Cambodia is a birders’ paradise, threats abound, chief among them poaching and land encroachment. Conservation groups say hunting has been further driven by Covid-19, which has plunged remote communities deeper into poverty. “Suddenly rural people have little to turn to but natural resources, and we’re already seeing a spike in poaching,” says Colin Poole, WCS regional director, Greater Mekong. Last April, three giant ibises – between 1 and 2 per cent of the global population – were poisoned at the Chheb Wildlife Sanctuary. (Poachers use poison to catch their quarry even though it is potentially harmful to those who eat the stolen birds.) This followed the poaching of 100 painted stork chicks at Prek Toal, in the previous month. Since last February, action has been taken in 12 cases of bird hunting using poison in the Northern Plains. Globally threatened white-winged ducks and sarus cranes are popular targets. “In conservation, education and working with local people are key to changing behaviour,” says Sikol San, in between pointing out painted storks soaring through the sky, cuckoos catching worms from lotus pads and cattle egrets perched on the backs of grazing water buffalo. “We have to offer an alternative income to hunting and cutting down trees, and before Covid we achieved this through eco-tourism.” Both CBGA and SVC run tours that benefit the communities in which they are based. Homestays and eco-lodges have sprung up in remote areas, with locals trained to serve visitors. Villagers are also recruited as tour guides and asked to trace birds before each tour. Photographer Senglim Suy has been running the Birds of Cambodia Education and Conservation association since 2012. Having grown up in a village about 40km from Phnom Penh, by his late teens, Senglim Suy had begun noticing the many colourful birds that had once frequented the area had disappeared. “I felt so sad and thought, I have to start photographing these birds in Cambodia before they go extinct,” he recalls. Senglim Suy started posting his photos on a Facebook page and was delighted with the response. “So many people were astonished these birds are from Cambodia,” he says. “More Cambodians wanted to become bird photographers and watchers and learn about the beautiful birds that live here. Before they looked at birds and thought, ‘Wow, so yummy!’ Now they look at them and think, ‘Wow, so beautiful!’” Although Covid-19 has temporarily halted Senglim Suy’s visits to schools, where he shares his passion, he is writing a book about Cambodian birds to be distributed to classrooms and libraries. “We have to conserve Cambodia’s special bird life for future generations,” he says. “When people can travel again, tourists can play a great role in helping this as their money funds conservation projects and provides income to local communities to protect bird life rather than destroy it.” Back in the Phnom Krom foothills, Sikol San having excitedly spied great mynahs, black-winged stilts, jacanas, spotted doves and pond herons, a sense of calm wafts through the fresh air alongside the soothing call of birdsong. “What I love most about birdwatching is enjoying the environment,” says the guide. “I’ve been here more than 100 times and I still love it and I want to share it with visitors.” Additional reporting by Nhean Vipheavy and Samoeun Nicseybon.