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COVID-19 fuelling an increase in poaching

In a single deliberate poisoning event, three Giant Ibis, equivalent to 1-2 percent of the global population, have been killed – part of a disturbing global trend where conservationists are noticing increases in hunting of protected species since the spread of coronavirus began to disrupt traditional economic and social systems in rural areas.

The incident was detected on 9 April 2020 in Chhep Wildlife Sanctuary, Preah Vihear Province. The birds were killed illegally for their meat, which would have been consumed locally or sold on the market.

In addition to the Ibis poisoning, more than 100 Painted Stork chicks were poached in late March at Cambodia’s Prek Toal Ramsar Site, the largest waterbird colony in Southeast Asia.

In the last two weeks as economies have closed down and incomes have dried up, conservationists have seen an increasing turn to natural resource exploitation – including poaching of protected wildlife.

Said Colin Poole, WCS Regional Director, Greater Mekong: “Suddenly rural people have little to turn to but natural resources and we’re already seeing a spike in poaching. The continued commitment of conservationists to local people in rural areas across the region is more important than ever right now, as they have no safety net and are alone on the front line, the first and last line of defence for the forests and wildlife in and around their communities.

Since early February 2020, Community Protected Area patrol teams and Provincial Department of Environment rangers have taken action against twelve cases of bird hunting using poisons in the Northern Plains. As well as Giant Ibis, victims have included globally threatened White-winged Duck and Sarus Crane, as well as many other species. Poachers place carbofuran-based poisons, which are particularly lethal to birds, in trapeangs (waterholes) and collect the dead birds. Provincial Department of Environment representatives have pledged to take strong action against these incidences.

The Giant Ibis Thaumatibis gigantea is Cambodia’s National Bird. It is classified as Critically Endangered globally, and is a protected species in Cambodia. Although it was formerly widespread in Southeast Asia, it is now only found in Cambodia where there are thought to be less than 300 individuals remaining. Giant Ibis inhabit remote deciduous forest in the lowlands of the Northern Plains and Eastern Plains. Chhep Wildlife Sanctuary and the adjacent Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary in the Northern Plains of Preah Vihear Province under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Environment supports at least one third of the global population of the species.

Thousands of international tourists have visited the Northern Plains to see Giant Ibis in past decade. Over this period they have paid over $100,000 into a communities and funds linked to sightings of this species. If there is no Giant Ibis in Cambodia these tourists will not visit the Northern Plains. Conservation partners also pay stipends to hundreds of community members to protect the nests of threatened birds, including the Giant Ibis, of which there are at least 30 pairs in the Northern Plains. More than 500 farmers also earn their income by growing wildlife friendly and organic certified Ibis Rice, for which they get nearly twice the market price because they protect Giant Ibis and its habitat. The loss of these birds would mean the loss of an important source of income to local people.

Conservation in the Northern Plains is managed by the Ministry of Environment through the Provincial Department of Environment and is supported by USAID through the Greening Prey Long Project, and by WCS through funding from Agence Française de Développement (AFD).

Header image: Giant Ibis. Credit: Phann Sithan/WCS.

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