Skip to main content

Livelihoods and Conservation: Protecting species by supporting local communities in Cambodia

Current initiative


Sarus Crane

Sarus Crane (Photo "The Divine Couple." by Nitish Bindal Photography is licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Farmers in the northern plains of Cambodia farmers eked out a meager existence growing rice, cutting trees from the forest and hunting wildlife, and were in direct competition with critically endangered species such as the Giant Ibis. Furthermore, the eggs and chicks of large waterbirds were threatened by small-scale poaching by local people.

Working with local communities, WCS and other stakeholders have implemented strategies that have reduced poaching and improved the lives of local people. Having rights to live on and use the land sustainably has encouraged farmers to think longer-term. These initiatives are about empowering local people to commit to preserving their environment whilst earning a living.


Logo for the Wildlife Conservation Society


Northern Plains:  Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary and Chhep Wildlife Sanctuary in Preah Vihear Province (KPWS-PVH) (CWS-PVH).

The area encompasses 16 villages that contain a mixture of people who have lived in the area for a long time and more recent migrants.

The poaching and wildlife trade problem

Species affected Banteng Bos javanicus , Gaur Bos gaurus , Giant Ibis Thaumatibis gigantean , Lesser Adjutant Leptoptilos javanicus , Masked Finfoot Heliopais personatus , Oriental Darter Anhinga melanogaster , Sambar Rusa unicolor , Sarus Crane Antigone antigone , Vultures , White-shouldered Ibis Pseudibis davisoni , White-winged Duck Asarcornis scutulata , Woolly-necked Stork Ciconia episcopus , Bears , Small Cats

Products in trade

Live animals, including the Saurus Crane and vultures, are poached to supply the local, regional and international pet trade (via Thailand), as well as meat and eggs for local consumption/trade, bones, chicks, trophies.

The meat and body parts of ungulates and carnivores are traded locally and internationally (to Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos).

Overview of the problem

In the early 2000’s the principal threat to nine globally threatened large waterbird species living in the Northern Plains of Cambodia was identified as a wholesale collection of eggs and chicks from nesting sites.

Snaring and hunting by local people are widespread and have resulted in highly depressed populations of wildlife.

The eggs or chicks of large waterbirds and vultures are targeted by local people. Eggs and chicks are a nutritious source of food for the rural poor, easy to obtain and low cost. However, when species populations are low, continual taking even of a few eggs can have a major impact. In some regions, the yearly wholesale collection of eggs and chicks devastated populations of waterbirds.

In the dry forest areas, most of the large waterbirds nest singly. When people encounter their nests they typically take the eggs or chick, either to eat as a snack in the forest or for sale in the village for a few dollars. 

Local people are motivated to poach because there are few alternative livelihood opportunities.

Corrupt military personnel are also involved.

The anti-IWT initiative

The initiative - comprised of three programmes utilising different strategies - are community-based and aim to tackle poaching and IWT, human encroachment/habitat loss within the park, and to reduce the use of pesticides.

1. Ibis Rice

In Cambodia, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has worked with communities in national parks for 20 years to develop livelihood incentive programs that link conservation results to cash benefits to local people. Rice farmers in those remote areas are far from markets and have limited economic opportunities.

Their practices, including forest clearing for rice paddies, can threaten local wildlife such as the Giant Ibis, Cambodia’s national bird and one of the rarest species of bird in the world.

To address this, in 2009, WCS founded a local social enterprise, Sansom Mlup Prey (SMP) to enable farmers to achieve a premium price for their rice in exchange for complying with conservation-friendly practices. These practices include the maintenance of land-use boundaries, a zero-wildlife hunting policy and organic farming. Each participating household signs a conservation agreement.

SMP trains farmers, and facilitates procurement, processing and marketing of the rice under the label “Ibis Rice”.

Farmer compliance is verified by US and EU organic certification as well as by WCS in collaboration with the national park, the use of satellite data and self-reporting village-level entities.

2. Bird Nest Protection Programme

This is a payments scheme designed to combat the threat of egg and chick collection. Under the scheme, local people are offered conditional payments if they successfully locate, monitor and protect nests until fledging, and receive double the daily protection payment if the nest fledges successfully.

3. Tmatboey Eco-tourism (inside Kulen Promtemp Wildlife Sanctuary)

Rare bird species, such as the giant ibis, attract specialist bird tourists, and so in 2003, WCS and partners have helped local communities develop the capacity to host tourists.

The initiative provides local villagers with education, income and a concrete incentive to protect the ibis.

Site-based tourism services are managed by an elected Community Protected Area Committee trained by WCS and its partners. Tourists contribute directly to the local economy through payments to villagers for services such as accommodation, guiding, cooking, transportation and Village Development Funds.

All visitors make a donation to the village conservation fund to help with maintenance and improvements to the project if they see both species of critically endangered ibis.

In 2006, the community committee took over operations.

The strategy

Strengthening disincentives for illegal behaviour

Paid in money community scouts
Performance-based payments/incentives for patrolling or guarding
Further detail

Birds' Nest Protection Programme

Two Research Team Leaders work with 14 community rangers – people from the communities showing a keen interest in wildlife, often ex-hunters. They get a salary from SVC and per diem for the work they do deep in the forest. The rangers monitor the two protected areas for wildlife and illegal activities and have been trained to do transects and collect other scientific information. They play a key role in biodiversity monitoring in the park.

The Rangers find the nests or are informed by community members. Rangers and local people who find nests of threatened species are paid a small cash reward. WCS facilitates a discussion in the village and a ‘nest guardian’ is selected. The ‘nest guardian’ is paid a small daily fee to protect the nest with payments doubled if nests are successful.

The average payment per nest guardian is $USD 80-150, which is significant in the local context where average annual incomes are less than $USD 500.

Traditional sanctions against IWT are integrated into Ibis Rice conservation agreements, and into the land use plans associated with Community Protected Areas, which are developed around villages that participate in Ibis Rice.

Increasing incentives for wildlife stewardship

Further detail

Nature tourism with birdwatchers who come to see giant ibis and other birds, with extra community-level payments conditional on sightings of endangered ibis species.

Increasing livelihoods that are not related to wildlife

Further detail

Conservation enterprise → working with farmers to produce world-class, organic jasmine rice.

Buy rice directly from the farmers: paying up to 50% above the market price.

Take care of the processing/packaging/marketing (including creating and managing links with restaurants and major supermarkets in Cambodia and are now selling around the world with both US and European organic standards (which provides access to high-end markets that we did not have before) + sell different products from whole foods to snacks (which allows farmers to focus on working their land). 

There is a condition to participate in this scheme = farmers must commit to using environmentally friendly farming methods (= balance between traditional knowledge and contemporary technology and ideas), zero expansion of their farmland (= zero deforestation = obey land use plan established in a participatory manner) & zero poaching. Farmers who commit to these conditions are then eligible to be certified as ‘Wildlife Friendly Farmers’ (nb. organic membership now compulsory for IBIS farmers) → 1,000 farmers from 12 villages now certified or in the process of being certified.

Other conservation-based enterprises include diversification to include other crops, such as mung beans. These provide an alternative cash crop for farmers, which improves resilience for both farmers and IBIS Ltd (e.g. more resilient against disease, climate change etc), and helps improve the soil (culture rotation). Cashew crops will be introduced into other protected areas in eastern Cambodia.

Improving education and awareness

Further detail

Community training outreach: farmers promote/encourage other villagers to be part of conservation enterprises.

Has the initiative made a difference?

The programmes have been successful in reducing poaching - though not completely.

Bird Nest Protection Programme

• Since 2002, 3,800 nests of 11 globally threatened bird species have been protected, leading to the fledging of 6,806 birds - at an approximate cost of $134 each.

• 2008 – The number of species protected by this scheme has increased from 9 to 11.

           – The number of villages participating has grown from 21 to 48; the proportion paid directly to local people has remained at around 70%. Rural per capita income rose from below $1 per day in 2008 to $1.7 per day by 2013; daily payments to nest protectors rose from $2 to $3.5; annual payments have more than doubled, to regularly exceed $50,000. As well as payments made to community nest protectors, this expense includes the salaries of 15 locally employed Community Wildlife Rangers, which have also risen with rising costs.

Average annual payments per protector of $140, remain significant in comparison with other forms of local cash income in rural areas.


• 2009-2018 –  Protect 500,000 hectares of forest and wetlands that is contributing to the conservation of more than 50 endangered animal species.

• 2009-2018 –  Increased the incomes of 1,000 rice-farming families.  Around 4,500 people are now benefiting from the program (Ibis Rice), which is expected to produce 1,500 metric tons of rice in 2018, with payments of over $600,000 per year at premiums of up to 100% over market prices. Ibis Rice is certified as organic and “Wildlife Friendly” and is now exported to Europe.

• Farmers compliance rate with wildlife-friendly certification has increased from 85 to 95% since organic certification. Compliance with wildlife-friendly certification is monitored 3 times a year with rigorous farm-level inspections. 

• Independent research by University of Cambridge, University of Oxford and Imperial College London (funded by the UK research councils) has found that the Ibis Rice program is improving livelihoods, whilst saving forests and the birds.                                              

• There are lower rates of deforestation around villages participating in Ibis Rice than similar non-participant villages.         


• Increased populations of endangered wildlife, particularly endemic birds: for example, the number of successfully fledged white-shouldered ibis chicks has risen from 4 in 2008 to 55 in 2016.

• Improved income from tourism: total annual revenue for the community from service provision has increased from $6922 in 2009 to $18 523 in 2016.

• Diversified sources of income: improves economic and social resilience.

• Contribution to improving community facilities: a total of $38 546 has been paid into the community development fund from conservation-dependent payments since the project’s inception in 2008.

• The project is recognised by the government as an example of best practice: received a medal from the Minister of Environment.

• High political support for Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary.

• Raised awareness in the community about endangered species, and positive changes in attitudes towards conservation: around 40% of the community are involved in the initiative.

• Community engagement in identifying drivers of deforestation: members monitor nest trees.

• Several communities from within the protected area, and from other protected areas in Cambodia, have visited the project to learn from its successes.

What works and why

Birds’ Nest Protection Programme

The success of the program has been closely linked to our research into the ecology of key bird species and strong working relationships with local communities. When communities have the opportunity to obtain socio-economic benefits from their wildlife assets, they are more motivated to protect them.


Developing high levels of trust with communities and park authorities was key to the success of this project.

This is best achieved by initially focusing on issues of shared concern, and building from there, and also ensuring all activities - be they non-governmental or community - are completely integrated into park management.

Project proponents must spend significant time in communities and move at their pace and using their social institutions, where possible. When developing eco-tourism or other conservation enterprises, ensure a direct link between the income and the conservation – for example, tourists only paying when they see selected species. To strengthen social institutions, and social pressure on compliance, payment schemes should include a community payment that is discretionary spending for the managing social institution.


1. Provide certainty and be flexible

Initially, financial constraints limited the ability of SMP to purchase all of the rice produced by participant farmers, which left farmers doubting the benefits of participating in the programme.

This was subsequently addressed by diversifying the products produced, e.g. the production of rice snacks that can be made with broken-grains.

2. Achieve a balance between enforcement and participation

One of the greatest challenges faced by the programme has been achieving a balance between enforcing the conditions of participation and fostering acceptance of the programme within communities and government. The conditionality created through the enforcement of the rules is a key determinant of the effectiveness of the incentives offered.

Over-zealous application of the rules resulted in some participants questioning the fairness of the compliance process and, therefore, risked undermining acceptance of the programme. This was true both within the villages where the programme is being implemented and for the government, for which officials with political connections may be unwilling to apply sanctions for fear of causing conflict.

This also has implications for who the incentives are targeted at. For the programme to be most effective, it would allow households with a history of illegal behaviour to participate, as it is the behaviour of these households that the programme was designed to influence. Hence, it is important that sanctions for rule-breaking are graduated, transparent and consistently applied to ensure acceptance, and that there is an established route by which non-compliant households can re-enter the programme (e.g.through giving up land parcels cleared without prior approval). [This is something that is in the process of being developed to ensure it is done legally and fairly]

3. Apply a process of adaptive management

As the programme has evolved so too has the context in which it operates and the challenges it faces. This is clearly demonstrated by the emergence, and increasing importance, of non-rice cash crops, such as cassava, peanut, and cashew. One of the strengths of Ibis Rice is that its incentives are targeted towards rice production, allowing farmers to earn more money without having to clear more forest. However, unapproved clearance of forest to grow other cash crops has become the primary reason by which farmers are being found to be noncompliant.

Although this is still emerging, efforts to identify suitable crops and sustainable production regimes are currently under development through a UK Darwin Initiative project to ensure that the programme is able to adapt to this particular challenge.

4. Target incentives at key times

The financial incentive offered by Ibis Rice comes in the form of payment for rice at harvest time (October-November). However, the key decision the programme is designed to influence is to clear the forest, which is typically taken in March-April. As such, there is a mismatch between the times' participants receive the incentive and the behaviour that incentive is designed to influence. To address this, a smaller collective bonus is paid to compliant farmers after the rice has been processed and sold by IRCC but timed to remind farmers of the benefit of participating in the programme and remaining compliant with the conservation agreements.

5. Building local institutional capacity is essential

SMP’s work with the VMNs to broaden understanding of the conditionality attached to the Ibis Rice programme is an extensive and on-going process. Ensuring that farmers only sign conditional conservation agreements once they have fully understood the content of those agreements – in line with the principles of free, prior and informed consent - requires a significant investment of SMP’s time and resources. Consequently, it is important that the VMNs have the capacity to provide farmers with the information they need to make decisions.

Similarly, VMNs play a key role in confirming the eligibility of farmers to sell rice to the Ibis Rice programme by identifying any instances of non-compliance with land use plans that would render a farmer ineligible to participate in the programme. This process is important for community acceptance of the compliance process but is vulnerable to abuse without proper management by the VMNs. Hence, SMP and the provincial environment department have been providing on-going technical support to VMNs to ensure that they have the capacity to perform their investigative and decision-making roles

Factors for success

Supportive national policy/legislation for devolved governance of natural resources

Long-term donor support that is flexible, adaptive and/or based on realistic time goals

Sufficient time investment in building relationships and trust between the initiative and local communities

Transparent and accountable distribution of benefits to local communities

Clear and tangible benefits to local communities from wildlife (These may be financial and/or non-financial)

Further detail

  1. Activities take place within Community Protected Areas (CPAs) (i.e. areas within the protected area network that are zoned for community use).
  2. A number of donors have provided sustained support over multiple grant cycles and have taken a keen interest in the project.
  3. Achieved through Ibis Rice, ecotourism and the Birds’ Nest Protection scheme.
  4. "path to productability” - investment in good marketing strategies (e.g. nice packaging), increased sales volumes and average price, market size, get organic certification (to compete with saturated market and creates an incentive as well as adding value), negotiate with other companies/partnership with established brands (e.g. organic food brand in Germany) – this led to improved margins from 14 to 33% by partnering with business (rather than just run by the implementing NGO itself).

Introducing crop diversification will help sustain farmers’ livelihoods over the long term

What doesn’t work and why

Ecotourism and conservation enterprises are not well suited to the donor cycles and require a long-term commitment to the park and enterprise. Enterprise should have professionally developed business plans that show a path not only to profitability but also to generating sufficient income for people to change their behavior. Monitoring of results and compliance need to be well designed to show impacts and enable adjustments to, or even abandonment of, the scheme if the desired conservation outcomes are not being realized.

Factors that limited or hindered success

Lack of supportive national policy/legislation on sustainable use of natural resources

Lack of coordinated and coherent sectoral policies/legislation (For example, land use planning, agricultural etc...)

Further detail

  1. Policies have been poorly implemented.
  2. There is little coherence in policy and legislation across sectors.

Organisers, donors and partners

Many over many years, including CEPF, USAID, AFD, NORAD, EU, SOS, Darwin, MRLG, various zoos and private donors.

Private sector partnerships as well.

For further information contact (