Yeng Mon, from Preah Vihear province’s Chaom Ksan district, leaves his home for the jungle at about 6am to protect the eggs of an endangered sarus crane he recently discovered.
Mr Mon, one of four siblings, has recently been employed as a protector of sarus crane eggs in Thmat Poey commune’s Pring Thom village after an NGO trained him on the value of the endangered bird.
Speaking while walking across a muddy rice field to the nest about five kilometres from his village, the 30-year-old said in the past he used to fish and occasionally hunted wild pigs to support his family because he is illiterate and didn’t know how to do anything else.
Upon reaching the nest, he said: “I started protecting the eggs of the sarus crane about a month ago because this kind of bird is very lovely. Their sound is very sweet, especially their screams in the morning.”
Mr Mon starts work at 6am and during his shift also has time to catch fish. After a long lunch break, he goes back to work from 4pm to 6pm but he must stay longer if the bird has flown away from its nest.
“Sometimes I spend half the morning protecting the nest because the bird flies off for a long time. Sometime I skip lunch because I have to wait until the bird comes back,” he added.
Mr Mon says that protecting cranes is very difficult for him during the season when they deliver their eggs because he worries wild pigs or local dogs will come to eat them. He has to stay about 30 metres away from the nesting area.
“The reason I protect their eggs is because I am worried a dog will eat them. I’m also afraid that someone will take them to eat because my village has only three people working to protect them,” he said.
By effectively protecting the eggs, Mr Mon hopes tourists will come to visit the area to see the birds so his village can make money to support their livelihoods.
The annual sarus crane census in 2016 recorded the lowest number of the birds, 433, in Cambodia and Vietnam since the synchronized counts began in 2001.
In recent years, there has been a declining trend in the number of sarus cranes observed throughout Cambodia. The seasonally flooded grasslands of the Northern Plains, one of the few locations in Cambodia where the birds breed, are threatened by agricultural conversion to rice paddies.
The crane always flies early in the morning over Mr Mon’s village and sometimes in the evening with a group of about four birds. He said it’s extremely difficult for the sarus crane during the dry season because of forest fires, forcing them to find a safe place.
“I don’t know where the birds go but they appear in the village again in the rainy season,” he said.
Mr Mon works with others in his village to protect the sarus crane, heading home when a friend takes over the watch in the evening.
“It is not easy. Sometimes I have to stay for days at a time or overnight in the jungle to protect them,” he said. “I have to protect them from the time I first see them until they deliver their babies. I have to follow them until they fly out from their nest.”
After the eggs hatch and the birds fly to a new home, egg protectors such as Mr Mon must walk through the jungle again in search of new nests to protect.
“When I find the nest of a new bird, I have to report it to the NGO’s office. Then they come to make a contract with us to allow us to protect it,” he said.
Speaking while smiling, he added: “People say that sarus crane meat is very delicious but I have never caught those birds to eat.”
Residents of Pring Thom village started protecting the crane about three years ago. A protector can earn about $3.50 a day from the NGOs that hire them to work.
“The NGOs were looking for villagers to protect the eggs of the sarus crane, so I volunteered to work. They taught us to understand the value of endangered animals and I have fallen in love with my job,” he said.
Mr Mon has never left his village to find a job elsewhere.
“I am a man of the village. I have never left to study because my family is very poor so I am happy to get an extra job as a bird protector,” he said. “I get money to support my family and I can also feel good about protecting endangered animals in my village.”
Early in October, a Wildlife Conservation Society team found that 50 sarus crane eggs had hatched from 27 nests in Preah Vihear province’s Kulen district. Ten nests were in the Chhep Wildlife Sanctuary and 17 were in the Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary.
Eng Mengey, communications officer for WCS, said his NGO has worked with local people since 2000, but he found that people were initially not interested in the work because they did not know how to report to his organisation after discovering a new nest.
He said people have only become interested in the work over the past three years, adding that his NGO recently hired 44 local villagers to protect nests.
“Sometimes these protectors work 24 hours straight, sometimes in the rain, because they worry the eggs will be eaten by wild pigs or domestic dogs, collected by local people, or get flooded,” he added.
Mr Mengey said when villagers find a new nest they must report it to the NGO staff based in their province. An officer will then go to the nest and make a contract with the villager to protect it.
“One nest needs protection for about two to three months. Then they must continue looking for a new nest,” he added.