A hopeful future for River Terns on Cambodia's riverbanks

The riverine areas of the Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot are home to some of the world's most threatened species of wildlife and are a haven for bird species that nest along its banks and sandbars. Large-scale agricultural practices and infrastructural development in this region have led to rapid loss and transformation of these riverine ecosystems, which serve as habitats for many endangered bird species. These adverse changes have contributed to the rapid decline of riverine sandbar-nesting birds in the Indo-Burma region. 

UMF Community nest monitoring workshop, Sesan River Cambodia

With a grant from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), the University of Minnesota (UMF) has adopted a community-based approach to address the decline in sandbar-nesting birds in northeastern Cambodia, prioritizing River Terns (Sterna aurantia), through the use of direct-payment incentives for community members participating in nest protection. This project is part of ongoing efforts led by UMF over the past five years, with objectives of engaging local communities, protecting birds’ nests, and increasing populations of sandbar-nesting birds.

The project has been implemented in the CEPF priority corridor the 'Mekong River and major tributaries', specifically the Sesan and the Sekong Rivers. The main activities were to conduct awareness-raising in communities near key breeding sites, provide information about the nest protection programme, and how to contact field staff if nests are located. The project operated in such a way that once birds’ nests were identified, community members were enrolled to protect them through voluntary agreements, and were provided financial benefits.

In addition to River Terns, the project has improved the protection of the nests of other locally threatened birds such as the Great Thick-knee (Esacus recurvirostris), the River Lapwing (Vanellus duvaucelii), the Small Pratincole (Glareola lactea), and the Little Ringed Plover (Charadrius dubius). The Great Thick-knee and the River Lapwing have been classified as “Endangered” in Cambodia and “Near-threatened” globally. To prevent the collection of eggs by humans and predatory animals, this project has used predator exclusion devices such as physical barriers to protect nests, otherwise called “exclosures”. These exclosures consist of wire-mesh fencing erected around nests, open only on the top in order to allow access for adult birds.

The project results indicate an increase in breeding populations of birds for the first time in five years. At least 265 nests belonging to eight species of birds have been protected, with the active participation of the local community. This has effectively reduced the incidence of humans and wild animals taking the eggs of focal bird species that the project seeks to protect.

“In addition to being short-term, quick fixes to immediate conservation problems, incentives-based conservation programmes can have long-lasting positive impacts. This is because active community involvement in conservation activities leads to positive shifts in attitudes and behaviors. Financial incentives were the primary reason that community members became involved in this project, but along the way, many of them have begun to care about the species they are protecting. Many participants now say that they love birds and will continue to protect them in the future,” said Andrea Claassen, Project Field Coordinator at UMF.

The UMF-led nest protection programme has had proven successes in mobilizing the community to protect River Terns, and has brought new hope for the conservation of other key bird species. It also created a positive shift in local attitudes towards conservation initiatives.

The exclosures are a good idea, because the nests need to be protected from animals such as rodents. This project has had positive results, because the number of birds have increased and future generations will now also be able to see them and participate in their conservation,” said Hom Ea, Community Nest Protector.
Note for Editors:

About CEPF
The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) is a joint initiative of l'Agence Française de Développement, Conservation International, the European Union, the Global Environment Facility, the Government of Japan, the MacArthur Foundation and the World Bank. A fundamental goal is to ensure civil society is engaged in biodiversity conservation.

More about River Terns
River Terns have been classified as “Critically Endangered” in Cambodia (Goes 2014) and “Near Threatened” globally (IUCN Red List 2012). With only about 100-150 individuals, Cambodia supports the majority of the Southeast Asian species population. The low global conservation status is based on a large assumed global population (>10,000 individuals; mostly situated in India) and a considerable global range. It is believed that the populations of River Terns are in decline throughout the world.

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