Uncovering Cambodia’s masked finfoot

Thaung Ret and Dr Nick Souter from Fauna & Flora International, Centre for Biodiversity Conservation at the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP), have been on the trail of the masked finfoot, classified as Endangered in the IUCN Red List of Threatened SpeciesTM. Through a grant administered by IUCN and CEPF, RUPP conducted several surveys in 2014. After months of searching they finally found the elusive bird. Ret tells us her story:

Adult Masked Finfoot near Antil village

The masked finfoot is one of Southeast Asia’s most secretive and threatened waterbirds. Rapid human expansion along waterways, pollution, overfishing and hunting have all taken their toll on the finfoot, and now it only lives in a handful of locations. One of these is Cambodia’s Northern Plains, a dry forest landscape with some of the best riverine habitats left in Indochina.

In July 2014 the Royal University of Phnom Penh’s (RUPP) Centre for Biodiversity Conservation joined the Wildlife Conservation Society to conduct an intensive masked finfoot survey in ten rivers in Cambodia’s northern plains and five in the south.

Apart from myself, our survey team included Cheang Sarak and Yim Reaksmey. Sarak and I are recent graduates of the RUPP and Fauna & Flora International’s groundbreaking Masters of Science in Biodiversity Conservation degree while Reaksmey is currently a student. We were joined by Rours Vann, Thong Sokha, Daniel Wilcox, Simon Mahood and Sarah Brook from WCS Cambodia who all provided vital local knowledge. The aim of our survey was to try and find as many masked finfoots as possible and identify what threats they encounter and which habitats (if any) they preferred.

Over the next six months we conducted eight surveys covering a total length of 204 kilometres: 168 km of ten rivers in the Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary and Preah Vihear Protected Forest in northern Cambodia, and 36 km of five rivers in Sre Ambel in Southern Cambodia.

We began our first survey in a remote upstream section of the Stung Sen River, reached after a bumpy journey on the back of a tractor trailer. We surveyed the river in small wooden boats, floating down the river and trying to be as quite as possible in order not to disturb any masked finfoots. Unfortunately the dry season had lasted longer than usual and we had to push, pull and haul the boats over the numerous fallen trees that choked the bottom of the now shallow river.

After camping overnight on the river bank we completed the survey and found easier going further down the river, mainly because of the increased human influence. Here rice fields reached the edge of the embankment, and there were numerous gill nets and fish traps. In addition to actively searching for masked finfoots we recorded a variety of other threatened species. Unfortunately we didn’t see any finfoots on the first trip. However we did see stork-billed kingfishers, grey-headed fish eagles and some very large water monitors.

Given the difficulties caused by the low water, we delayed our next trip until the long awaited rains arrived. But when they did arrive we had to contend with flood rather than drought—the Stung Sen River had broken its banks. While it was now easier to travel by boat, the flood made it harder to follow the actual river channel, and even harder to spot the masked finfoot which may now be using the inundated floodplain as habitat.

We were lucky—we found our first masked finfoot along the Memay River, just 15 days after the first survey.

To start the survey we travelled up the Memay River as far as we could before stopping for lunch. While we cooked lunch we heard the finfoot calling around 100 metres downstream. Raksmey and I went down along the path to check. Hiding behind a big tree, I came very close to the finfoot. The finfoot kept calling for three minutes until it flew to the river and quickly swam downstream out of sight.

We then returned to the camp and at 3:00 pm we started our survey. Fifteen minutes later, and about 500 meters from our lunch stop, we heard a finfoot calling again, just 20 metres upstream from us on the edge of the river; then we heard another calling downstream. We saw this finfoot swim across the river into the forest. We believe the two were a pair.

These were the first of seven masked finfoots we found, all within Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary. While we didn’t find any in Preah Vihear Protected Forest, we did find five endangered white winged ducks. Sadly the five rivers in Srey Ambel were largely silent with no masked finfoot or white winged duck. We suspect these rivers to have been subjected to intensive hunting.

Although we may have only found seven masked finfoots, our surveys confirmed that Cambodia’s northern plains are a priority site for their conservation.

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