Spanning over 20,000ha, the Prek Toal Ramsar site in Battambang province reigns as Cambodia’s largest bird sanctuary.

Nestled within the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve at the northwest corner of Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, it serves as a vital haven for hundreds of bird species, including 15 globally threatened. 

The wetland, deemed an area of international importance in 2015, also boasts significant freshwater fish habitats, making it a vital ecological treasure. 

Located in Koh Chivaing commune in Battambang’s Ek Phnom district, the wetland sanctuary stands as a testament to the Kingdom’s commitment to protecting biodiversity.

Hong Chamnan, director of the Ministry of Environment’s Freshwater Conservation Department, anticipates the area’s future designation as an ASEAN Heritage Park (AHP) due to its unique ecological wealth, ecosystems, wilderness, and exceptional scenic, cultural, educational, research and recreational value.

“When discussing Prek Toal, we highlight its significant bird population, which includes over 200 species, several of which are listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature [IUCN] Red List of Threatened Species,” he says.

Chamnan made his remarks in late January during a joint visit by EU ambassador to Cambodia Igor Driesmans, German ambassador to Cambodia Stefan Messerer and Minister of Environment Eang Sophalleth to the Tonle Sap Lake area in Siem Reap province and the Prek Toal Ramsar site, underscoring the importance of ecological preservation. 

Prime bird watching destination

“Due to favourable conditions in the area, nature enthusiasts visiting Cambodia often prioritise Prek Toal as it is managed by the ministry in collaboration with relevant organisations, offering the opportunity to observe various species. This enhances the wetland’s appeal for eco-tourism,” Chamnan says.

Unobtrusive, wooden viewing platforms perched amidst tall trees offer visitors and conservationists a bird’s-eye view of the wildlife at the refuge. Spread across 11 locations, these platforms provide unique vantage points for observing countless animal species.

Chamnan notes the platforms’ dual role: serving both tourism and habitat protection. Local fisheries communities and rangers utilise them to monitor wildlife and crack down on illegal hunting and fishing, protecting this vital ecosystem.

He says that a long-term survey tracked over 200 bird species in the area, focusing on three critically endangered ones: the milky stork, greater adjutant and lesser adjutant.

“Examining the data, we see an increase in three species over the eight years. This indicates a significant improvement in both natural resource and bird conservation in the area,” he says.

Chamnan highlights the threats faced by the painted stork (Mycteria leucocephala), Oriental darter (Anhinga melanogaster) and Asian openbill (Anastomus oscitans).

He says that between 2004 and 2022, over 12,000 pairs of these species were observed, with the Asian openbill experiencing a notable increase in recent years due to concerted stewardship efforts.

Restoration and protection

The EU supports the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve through partnerships with stakeholders, including member states, governments, NGOs and development partners. This collaboration aims to empower local communities and authorities to improve water resource management, promote sustainable agriculture and fisheries development as well as freshwater products. 

Additionally, the initiative seeks to restore and preserve ecosystems and natural variety by expanding protected areas around the lake and its tributaries.

Chamnan advocates for the project’s continuation to safeguard species and improve living standards, promoting better natural resource maintenance.

“Failure to address development within conservation efforts will hinder success. Continued support from the EU and other organisations is positive. Successful ecological restoration efforts attract tourists to observe wildlife,” he says.

Driesmans, impressed by the area’s flora and fauna during his visit, lauds both the boat trip’s birdlife and the rare species he saw from observation platforms. The EU, he notes, actively supports the region by nurturing the lake’s ecological abundance, promoting sustainable forestry and protecting local livelihoods.

“We’re here as part of the ‘For Our Planet’ campaign, which aims to spotlight some of the challenges facing our planet – environmental degradation, species loss and climate change, to name but a few – and also to highlight some of the solutions we can provide to address those challenges. It’s no coincidence that we’ve come to Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, which is not only a biodiversity hotspot but also a source of income for millions of Cambodians,” he says.

Heart of Tonle Sap

Battambang deputy governor Soeum Bunrith hails Prek Toal as the Tonle Sap’s heart, vital for nature’s tapestry, society and the economy. 

He highlights its role in supporting globally significant animal life within some of the reserve’s most pristine floodplains. He notes that this seasonally flooded forest also serves as crucial breeding grounds for diverse wildlife.

“The Tonle Sap, known as the last refuge for several critical bird species, is being eyed for designation as an AHP. The provincial administration is working closely with the environment ministry on this initiative,” he says.

In 2015, the government designated the core area of the reserve as the Prek Toal Ramsar site. This aimed to protect crucial wetlands and enhance fish stocks, supporting local communities and economic development.

The Tonle Sap Lake, covering over 1.4 million hectares, was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1997, boasting over 800 species.

According to a 2001 Royal Decree, biosphere reserves are divided into three interconnected areas: core, buffer and transition areas.

The three core areas are Prek Toal in Battambang (over 20,000ha), Boeng Tonle Chhmar in Kampong Thom province’s Stoung district (over 14,000ha) and Stung Sen in Kampong Thom’s Kampong Svay district (over 6,300ha).

Cambodia ratified the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance in 1996 and became the 116th full member of the convention in 1999.

In addition to Prek Toal, the Kingdom has five Ramsar wetland sites: Koh Kapi in Koh Kong province, Stung Sen and Boeng Tonle Chhmar in Kampong Thom province and Stung Treng Ramsar in Stung Treng province.