Cambodia Ramsar Site threatened by upstream dam operations, climate change and poaching
In April 2023, the Fishing Cat Ecological Enterprise (FCEE), an entity supported by IUCN’s Mekong WET project, published a Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment (CCVA) for Stung Treng Ramsar Site (STRS). The report highlights the importance of the unique flooded forest and deep pools at the site for biodiversity and associated fisheries, and the impacts of upstream dam operations and climate change on the future of the section of the river.
The assessment of the wetland in Cambodia was supported by a number of tools, including interviews with local community members, biodiversity surveys and camera-trapping at the site. The CCVA used climate projections and data from stakeholders to provide critical up-to-date information on biodiversity in STRS that can be used to strengthen the conservation of the site.
The small grant, which covered the publication of the Assessment, aimed to understand the ecological health of the wetland and the species within it, and assess the vulnerability of the local communities whose livelihoods depend on the site. This information is critical to conserve the biodiversity of the area and improve the livelihoods of local communities.
The results demonstrated that local communities have recently experienced drought, extreme storms and winds, and unusually high and low temperatures. These impacts have resulted in damage to homes, crops and in some cases, have affected the health of people and livestock, as well as hindering income generation.
STRS plays a crucial role in providing habitats for various key species, especially migrant white fish and megafish like the Critically Endangered giant barb (Catlocarpio siamensis). The site is also critical for numerous bird species, particularly the regional endemic Mekong wagtail (Motacilla samveasnae).
Irrawaddy dolphins (Orcaella brevirostris), belonging to the critically endangered Mekong subpopulation, previously inhabited transboundary deep pools north of STRS. They were once considered a significant flagship species in the area and supported ecotourism activities. Illegal fishing over four decades decimated their population, contributing to local extinction. If conservation efforts are strengthened, however, there is still a chance that the dolphins may one day return to inhabit STRS, said Vanessa Herranz Muñoz, conservation zoologist and Director of FCEE.
STRS hosts a unique flooded forest habitat where current swept semi-aerial roots create the site’s distinctive landscape. The most severe threat to the STRS wetland habitats is the altered hydrology currently driven by upstream dam operations. In recent years, the release of water during the dry season has altered the life cycle of the wetlands, preventing these unique flooded habitats from being exposed for long enough to complete their life-cycle. This impact is apparent throughout the site, where mass die-outs of flooded forest trees can be seen.
FCEE conducted a camera-trap survey which showed the presence of Endangered banteng (Bos javanicus), long-tailed macaque (Macaca fascicularis) and green peafowl (Pavo muticus). Images from the survey, as well as results from additional questionnaires on threats to wildlife showed that poaching with guns, snares and bird nets are significant issues in STRS. Although the presence of fishing cats was not recorded during the survey, local informants were better able to identify the species than in other areas, which prompted FCEE to continue its search for the elusive feline in STRS.
Meanwhile, climate change will exacerbate the impact of other anthropogenic threats to the site and could potentially push its habitats beyond ecological tipping points. The most pressing threats, however, stem from dam operations upstream severely altering hydrology, as well as on-going intense illegal fishing, logging and poaching.
Only international cooperation that benefits both people and biodiversity can limit the impacts of upstream dam operations. Construction of additional mainstream dams would have substantial impacts on Stung Treng's wetlands. Sustainable financing mechanisms should be developed to ensure suitable living standards for local communities to minimise illegal activities and promote diversified livelihood opportunities, including tasks directly connected with the conservation and restoration of habitats. Cooperation between government agencies, NGOs and local communities, as well as further development of sustainable ecotourism activities and services are urgently needed to tackle illegal activities in STRS. The results of this study can be used to strengthen effective management and conservation of these unique Mekong River wetlands.
Read the full Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment for Stung Treng Ramsar Site here
Funded by the International Climate Initiative (IKI) of the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety (BMUB), the “Mekong WET: Building Resilience of Wetlands in the Lower Mekong Region” project aims to build climate resilience by harnessing the benefits of wetlands in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand, and Viet Nam.