This was my first wildlife shoot in far too long. A friend and fellow wildlife photographer Bruce Kekule came from Thailand to try to get some photos of the enigmatic Giant Ibis, one of the world’s rarest birds. There are thought to be around 300 of these rather prehistoric looking birds remaining, all of them in Cambodia. They require a very specific habitat that used to be found across much of South East Asia, however today this type of open forest has almost disappeared from neighbouring countries, having been turned into rice fields.
I first came to Preah Vihear province in February 2001, when I spent 15 days trying to take pictures of the recently rediscovered Giant Ibis. These birds had not been seen in decades in surrounding countries and after the three decade long war in Cambodia they were believed to be extinct. In 1999, just a year after the fighting finally finished, conservationists were surprised to find a handful of the birds surviving on the northern plains of Cambodia. The Wildlife Conservation Society began surveying the area and discovered several other critically endangered large birds, including the White shouldered Ibis and three species of vultures. The area is also home to numerous other rare and endangered birds like the Lesser and Greater Adjutants, Woolly Necked Stork, Green Peafowl, Sarus Crane, Black Necked Stork and White Winged Duck.
I got my National Geographic shot of the Giant Ibis after walking more than 150kms in 15 days and staking out a number of ponds, known locally as ‘trapeangs’. I finally got my shot on day 13 just as I was about to give up for the day due to the lack of light. I’d just spent 3 days sitting at this particular tiny pond and had only seen one pigeon and a rather muddy little tortoise that wandered into my hide. It landed no more than 10 meters away and I knew immediately I would only get one chance, as the noise from my cameras shutter would almost certainly scare it off. I managed to sit patiently for about 2 or 3 minutes as I let it settle, which was not easy having waited so long. It finally started feeding so I clicked off 2 shots. It looked up in surprise and I knew I wasn’t going to have much time. I waited a few seconds more hoping it would settle again but I felt sure it was going to take flight. Desperate not to miss this opportunity after so long I fired off 2 more shots and then held the shutter button down to fire off about 7 or 8 shots as it took off. It was hard to get the grin off my face that evening. As I was still using slide film at the time, I had an anxious 5-month wait to get the film developed to see if I really had got the shot.
Anyway, back to this trip.
We headed out with guides from the village of Tmat Boey (which means “Vulture washing place” in English). There is a fantastic eco-tourism/bird watching set up here, which genuinely benefits the community. The Wildlife Conservation Society in Cambodia have helped to set up a network of bird watching sites aimed at wealthy birdwatchers, rather than mass tourism that could negatively effect the wildlife here. Among other things the roads in the village have been repaired and a school built to help this very remote and poor community. Villagers also earn money as guides, cooks, cleaners and drivers and they have also learnt how to run a very effective tourism project. Visitors also pay a basic fee of $30 that goes to the village fund.
With assistance from WCS the village now has 6 small bungalows with hot and cold running water, enough solar power to run lights, charge equipment and even run small fans in the rooms. As someone who has been working in remote areas like this for the past decade I can tell you that being able to have a hot shower after a long hot and dusty day in the field is wonderful. Especially on a crisp winter evening!
As you will probably all be aware the Thai and Cambodian military have been at it again, fighting over a measly 9 soccer pitches of land… personally I can’t see why they can’t just split this tiny bit of land in 2 and get on with life. It seems to be a convenient distraction from political problems at home for the Thai’s and an opportunity for the Cambodian govt to gain some brownie points at home. We arrived in Tmat Boey on the 3rd Feb and headed out the next day to build hides. It wasn’t until we started shooting on the morning of the 5th that we realised something major was going on. As we sat there waiting for the sun to rise we started to hear loud booming in the distance. At first we couldn’t work out what it was as we were about 10kms from the nearest village. Then Bruce hit on it, bombs! We sat there listening to the bombardment for close to 3 hours that morning as we photographed various birds that appeared at the little pond we had staked out. It was hard to understand how we could hear it, as we were some 60 to 65kms from the Temple site on the border. It wasn’t until that evening that we were told that the Thai’s were bombarding a Cambodian Military base about halfway between us and the border. The bombing continued both on the 6th and 7th, although it was only sporadic. We listened to jets flying in and out and then what sounded like bombing runs rather than artillery fire. I have not had much time to search for news on the net about the fighting since we left the forest, but I spent an hour trying to find any references to Thai aircraft or the attack on the military base and could find nothing. This is a massive escalation from the occasional gunfight or lobbing a few mortars at each other that has taken place over the past year.
Back to the birds. I was really hoping to get a shot of a White Shouldered Ibis on this trip, the one remaining critically endangered bird in Cambodia I didn’t have a good shot of (although I do have plenty of video). I did get a white bellied woodpecker, which are not easy to see as well as numerous other fairly common species like Spotted Doves, the very vocal Crested Serpent Eagle, White Throated Kingfisher and the Javan Pond Heron. We didn’t see a Giant Ibis till the second morning when one landed in a nearby tree to survey the area. These birds have a strange call that’s hard to describe. We are unsure why, but the bird decided not to land at our pond. Something obviously put it off although we were pretty sure it wasn’t us. Anyway in the mid afternoon as it was getting bloody hot in the hide and we were both starting to doze off we suddenly heard their unmistakeable call. We looked up to see five had landed in the big tree opposite us. As you can imagine our hearts were racing, five at once would be a bit special. We had to wait about 10 minutes before they decided the coast was clear and it was safe to come down to feed. They all landed about 12-15 meters away and immediately began to search for frogs, crabs and anything else that took their fancy. We stared clicking away, I was there mainly to concentrate on video but I soon discovered that even with my reading glasses I couldn’t focus the video using the LCD screen in the confines of the hide. I had to get in focus taking some still shots and then switch to video… new glasses are the first thing to buy now I am in Khon Kaen. We photographed and filmed the birds for around an hour before our guides returned to pick us up and scared the birds off, but we were very happy as we both had some great stuff in the bag. The following morning I managed to catch one of my feet on a tree stump as we drove to the site, twisting my ankle. I managed to get to the site but during the morning my ankle became swollen and by the time it we left I could barely walk. We decided to move to another trapeang for the afternoon in the hope of seeing some different species but didn’t have much success. One Ibis did turn up briefly but was so close that as soon as we started to shoot we scared it off. What we believe to be the same bird came back a second time about an hour later and again stayed for only a few seconds, but I did get a great shot this time.
By the time the guides turned up my ankle was really sore and I decided it wasn’t worth risking serious damage coming out the following morning so Bruce went on his own. Unfortunately he didn’t have any luck but we left the village very happy all the same.