TMATBOEY, Cambodia - Villagers and international wildlife experts have teamed up to save what scientists list as the world's most endangered bird. Despite their pioneering efforts, politics, poaching and people pressure may yet sweep the giant ibis into oblivion.
Only about 230 mature individuals remain worldwide, according to best estimates of minimum numbers. The birds are making their last stand in the largest remaining dry tropical forests of mainland Southeast Asia.
The great swath of savanna and woodlands across northern Cambodia once teemed with wildlife -- one biologist in the 1950s described it as "second only to African game lands in game abundance." But hunting, illegal logging, inroads by migrant settlers and government-granted economic land concessions are destroying the region's flora and fauna, hemming Thaumatibis gigantea, the giant ibis, into ever tighter enclaves.
About 20 per cent of the global population can be found -- and thus quite easily spotted by visitors -- around the village of Tmatboey. There, the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society has enlisted impoverished residents to protect the species in return for income and other benefits, using an ecotourism programme that is attracting bird watchers from as far away as Britain and Japan.
With its bald, grayish head, long crooked beak and orange legs, the giant ibis can hardly be described as beautiful. But it is Cambodia's national bird and has acquired an almost mythical status among the international bird-watching fraternity, because of its rarity and primeval air.
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