As the sun sets on the Boeung Sne Conservation Area, birdsong swells over the lake. An egret flies to its nest and other birds take to the air, surprised by visitors in a rowing boat.
Chea Sarith looks out from his office overlooking the Prey Veng province flooded forest where 16 species of bird have returned since the area was protected. These include rare species such as the marabou.
Not long ago there was little wildlife there due to loss of forest and illegal hunting.
“The people who live near the lake are happy to see the lost animals from the area return,” says Mr Sarith, president of the WOMEN non-government organisation.
The NGO runs environment projects in addition to helping disadvantaged women. This one in Ba Phnom district is to mitigate climate change.
Protection had brought thousands of animals of many species to find food around the lake, Mr Sarith said.
The area is developing gradually into a tourist site, though its existence is not widely known.
Community members say they need experts to advise them on preparations for tourism development in nearly 100 hectares of flooded forest in the middle of the 2,000 hectare Boeung Sne lake.
Mr Sarith said the Prey Veng programme had promoted conservation of natural resources in three main areas of fish, flooded forests and rare birds.
He said it was important for the region to conserve these resources.
He created the programme to preserve the flooded forest as a habitat for birds and for the reproduction of fish, which provide food for people living nearby.
“Because I work in this area and am a resident in the area, I do not want to see the erosion of the forest and the loss of natural resources. Therefore, from 2010 until now, we have been working on this project.”
Lay Chanthorn, who lives in the province and who was visiting the area, said he never thought that Prey Veng had a bird conservation area in which many kinds of animals were starting to return.
“Conservation is a good idea to preserve birds which have become endangered due to being hunted by local people,” he said. “Once I arrived at the area, it looks really great taking a boat to see the birds in the evening.
“It was fun to see the animals because I do not need to go far away. I can see the birds near my home.”
He said that previously, big birds such as the marabou stork species and many other kinds of rare birds had been found only in conservation areas of the Tonle Sap.
Now that these kinds of animals were in Prey Veng province, the younger generation could see them, he said.
Mr Sarith said the conservation team had overcome many difficulties, some of which had almost prevented establishment of the protected area.
The area had appeared abandoned, with people living nearby fishing or hunting illegally.
However after WOMEN created the conservation programme, there was collaboration with experts from government departments and local authorities to set up bird and fish patrols and educate people about conservation.
The area was estimated to be 90 to 95 percent protected but opportunists were still taking part in illegal activities such as fishing with illegal nets or hunting birds.
Mr Sarith said his organisation collaborated with officials and authorities to spread information and educate people to join conservation efforts.
“We have a community-based education programme on climate change about the preservation of natural resources,” he said. “We instruct them about fisheries laws and forest law relating to animal hunting.
“We explain to them about the law and the benefits they would get when the natural resources are still there.”
Boeung Sne has limitations as a potential tourist area due to the size of the natural lake and its bird life.
Mr Sarith is organising a programme to provide community tourist attractions to increase income for people living near the lake.
“We will set up an ecotourism site,” he said. “I will organise to have restaurants and boats to look at the animals. Currently, there are people who watch the birds, but not in big numbers.”
Prey Veng provincial environment department chief Toch Varatha said his department was planning to help the community to create potential ecotourism sites like the one in the Boeung Sne area.
“Through the potential of the natural area and natural resources in Boeung Sne lake, it is expected that other communities will contribute more to the development of this area into a tourist site.
“When it becomes a tourist destination, those who live alongside the lake will benefit most.”
Although there is no community tourist base, thousands of families living in 23 villages in five communes near the lake have already benefited from the conservation project. Small-scale fishing businesses are one example.
Boeung Sne Conservation Community Commission member Pan Yoeurn said that after the conservation effort, rare species of birds returned to the area.
This seemed to make it rich in animal life and an attractive place to visit in the future.
He takes tourists on evening cruises to watch the birds. There is no fixed price for his services. Customers decide how much to pay.
Mr Chanthorn, who took a boat ride, said that if the area turned into a tourist site, and had relaxing places or small restaurants as in other tourist destinations, he would introduce the area to his friends.
Mr Sarith said he thought those supporting tourism services or visiting the Boeung Sne area to look at the birds would mostly be people living in the area.
He said the eco-tourism project would be a model for other communities.
“They can start thinking and getting together to make plans to make it successful for each community because each region has different tourist potential.”