Tuesday, 10 March 2015

A unique ecosystem - but for how long?

Prek Toal bird sanctuary is located on the Tonle Sap lake, not far from the renowned Khmer temple complex Angkor Wat in Siem Reap. It forms part of a unique and fascinating ecosystem, but enormous upstream changes on the Mekong River are casting doubt on its future. 

Spot-billed pelican

The sanctuary is home to an incredible variety of birds, many of which are increasingly rare. The spot-billed pelican (Pelecanus philippensis) is a near-threatened species which currently has breeding colonies in just three areas of the world, Tonle Sap lake being one of them. 

Greater adjutant

Rarer still is the greater adjutant (Leptoptilos dubius), an enormous stork that grows up to 1.5 metres tall, which is restricted to just two breeding populations in the world. 

Painted stork

A good way to visit the bird sanctuary is to combine it with an overnight homestay in the nearby floating village of Prek Toal.

Prek Toal floating village

The area's unusual ecosystem arises from the yearly seasonal rains and a unique relationship between the Mekong River and the Tonle Sap, which increase the size of the lake over five times, flooding areas which only weeks before had been dry and dusty. This pulse of the rivers and lake is known locally as the "heartbeat of Cambodia", such is its importance for humans and wildlife alike. 

Traditional fishing methods remain important

Any buildings in the area which do not float are built on high stilts, to keep them above water during the rainy season. 

A stilted building

When your house floats, it's easy to move it!

Moving house

Water hyacinth is an invasive species in Tonle Sap lake, and a major problem. One of the local community projects involves drying these invasive plants then using them to weave mats and other products which can then be sold. 

Weaving mats from water hyacinth

The company we used, Osmose Day Tours (http://bit.ly/198LqiY) were an excellent choice, providing responsible and knowledgeable guides, as well as supporting various community initiative projects. Food is provided in a community-run restaurant, serving delicious and fresh local dishes. 

It is unclear what will happen to the ebbs and flows of the Tonle Sap in the future. Further upstream the flow of the Mekong is being interrupted by the construction of dams, and it is uncertain what impact this will have on downstream ecosystems (http://bit.ly/1bPcMuC).

Now is the time to visit this unique ecosystem, and experience the heartbeat of Cambodia.

Sunset over Prek Toal floating village

For more images, please visit my Flickr page: http://bit.ly/1B0uwIQ