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Conservationists Urge Locals to Save Cambodia's Rarest Bird

It's in the cool of the very early morning, when the people of Kampong Thom province have only just begun to stir, that the bird-watcher has the best chance of spotting the Bengal Florican. This mysterious member of the bustard family was only discovered in Cambodia in 1999. Until then it was believed to exist only in tiny populations in Vietnam and Nepal.

Most of the year the Bengal Florican is a shy creature, but in the breeding season it casts caution, and itself, to the wind in one of Cambodia's great natural sights: the male Bengal Florican's courtship dance.

Biologists are trying to learn more about this enigmatic bird. For Lotty Packman, from the University of East Anglia, in the UK, it's a labour of love. Packman says the birds are an interesting species to study because they are very striking and charismatic.

Lotty Packman: "They're very striking, very charismatic, very interesting display they way they jump up and they call and fly down. They're just very unique, very interesting species to be studying."

But now the flamboyant Florican is facing a grave and unprecedented threat as a result of Cambodia's economic progress. Tom Evans from the Wildlife Conservation Society explains that the biggest threats come from companies who build industrial-scale farming operations which remove the birds' natural habitat.

Tom Evans: "The biggest threats come from companies who come to invest in the land, and build industrial scale farming operations which remove the grasslands, which remove habitat for the threatened species, and also limit the access of local communities to the areas they used to use."

Since 2005, more than 100 strip dams have been carved into the grasslands, creating thousands of hectares of paddy fields. Almost a third of the Bengal Florican's habitat has vanished. Conservationists believe this economic progress could kill off the species in its heartland within five years.

An innovative approach to land protection. This police unit is patrolling parts of the grassland that have been designated as Integrated Farming and Biodiversity Areas, or IFBAs. Within these zones new development is forbidden. There are currently 5 IFBAs in Kampong Thom and Siem Reap provinces, ring-fencing around 350 square kilometres.

Conservationists believe they have put the brakes on the land grab with several schemes already abandoned or scrapped since the protection began 2 years ago. Sin Sienglay from the Forestry Department says he is proud to work on the project.

Sin Sienglay: "I'm proud to work on this. If we can protect this area and save the habitat, we can save the bird."

And it's not just the birds who are affected. Overnight, livestock farmers have lost pasture they've used for decades. Others have lost small-scale crop plantations to the mega-paddy fields.

The New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, Birdlife International and the Cambodian government, who jointly developed the IFBAs, have reached out to these threatened groups to get them on side. Meeting with village elders they've explained how the needs of the Bengal Florican and the needs of the community go hand in hand. The scheme has been given the nod by the Village Chief, Meas Than.

Meas Than: "This biodiversity project is importan for everyone here in this district so we can have a better life for generations to come."

So much is still unknown about the Bengal Florican. The pictures seen here of the female are believed to be the first ever on moving images caught on tape. It's to fill the yawning gaps in our knowledge that Lotty Packman is attaching satellite transmitters to the Bengal Floricans. These solar-powered devices will send back vital data every two days.

So far the females have eluded Packman's nets, but even so, any information about the species can play a part in saving it from extinction. Packman says it's a race against time. She and her colleagues have to gather as much information on the birds as possible before they disappear. But she's confident that once the information is to hand the habitat of the Bengal Florican can be managed.

Information for this report was provided by APTN.