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The Peregrine Fund Notes From The Field
Cambodia: Grey-headed Fish Eagle Project, Part 2
Ruth Tingay — in Asia-Pacific    Share

It’s dark, cold and raining by the time I reach Heathrow. I expect most of my fellow-travellers are pleased to be leaving it all behind in their New Year’s get-away but January is one of my favourite months to be in the UK. I know many people find this hard to comprehend but I’m not a sun worshipper and if I had the choice I’d happily spend a month of cosy fireside hibernation instead of a sweat-ridden endurance test in the sauna of the tropics. For someone with these preferences, it’s quite ironic that over the years most of my fieldwork has taken place close to the equator!

Two Cambodian rangers thank Fat Ronnie for their binoculars

Two Cambodian rangers thank Fat Ronnie for their binoculars

Two of my team members are already waiting for me at check-in. I’ve known Dave and Ronnie for a number of years through our work in the Scottish Raptor Study Group. Both are highly experienced fieldworkers who bring their own areas of expertise to the project, to compliment those of the other team members. This will be Dave’s second trip to Cambodia and Ronnie’s first, although Ronnie already has cult-status amongst our Cambodian field crew, even though they’ve never met him. He was planning to join us during the 2009 field season but it was too close to Christmas (his busiest period at work) so instead he donated several pairs of binoculars for the local rangers. These rangers heard us talking about him (affectionately known as Fat Ronnie) throughout the trip and we returned home with a photograph of two rangers, proudly wearing their new binoculars and holding up a sign that said ‘Thanks Fat Ronnie’. This photograph has since been framed and now acts as an unusual conversation piece in Ronnie’s house. The rangers were excited to learn that the legendary Fat Ronnie would finally be making an appearance in the swamp this year!

After some strategic moving around of Dave’s climbing gear from one bag to another and then another (mainly to prevent us being charged excess baggage fees) and insulting Ronnie’s choice of hand baggage (effectively a doll’s rucksack with just about enough space to carry a packet of crisps but with no room for heavy field equipment!), we were ready to go. For reasons that I still don’t understand, our cheapest flight route was via South Korea, before doubling back down to Cambodia.

The flights were uneventful, as all good flights should be. The food was shocking though; I eyed the Korean Air unidentifiable ‘meat’ dish with suspicion and decided to go vegan for the duration of the flight – the boys wolfed down their portions and then ate mine without a second’s thought – but then the Scots aren’t exactly known for their culinary sophistication! The cabin crew were amazingly attentive, although after ordering one round of gin & tonics, I asked for another and was puzzled when I was presented with a can of ginger ale. The attendant told me they’d run out of gin and so I guess she’d seen the first three letters on the can – I admired her logic if not her knowledge of alcohol.

Almost 24 hours later we touched down at Siem Reap (pronounced See-um Reep) airport in the NW of Cambodia. It was late at night but the furnace of the tropics blasted us as soon as the plane’s door was opened. Passengers were stripping off layers of clothing as we headed into the small terminal building to endure our first taste of South East Asian bureaucracy: getting our visas stamped. I counted 19 elaborately-uniformed officials sitting in a line behind a room-wide desk. The passport is passed from one to the next and the next…I’ve no idea what each one was doing but why employ one person when nineteen will do? Eventually the passports were handed back and we progressed through customs for electronic fingerprint and retina scanning, through the baggage collection hall and then outside to meet up with our main man in Cambodia, the original Mr Fix-It, Visal.

Visal, our project collaborator in Cambodia

Visal, our project collaborator in Cambodia

I first met Visal in 2005. Working as the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Project Officer at Prek Toal, he had been assigned to accompany us during our first visit to search for fish eagles at the Tonle Sap Lake. It was a fortuitous assignation for us; Prek Toal had been identified as a regionally important site for many species of water birds and Visal was employed to monitor these breeding colonies. As a result, he knew the swamp, and the birds, better than anybody. He helped us to conduct our first fish eagle surveys in the swamp and in return, we provided training on survey techniques and fish eagle ecology. It was a perfect match and we have worked closely with him ever since. As soon as we understood the importance of Prek Toal as a regional hotspot for the GHFE, it was clear that we needed a capable and reliable local ornithologist to lead the project in-country. After spending a four-month internship in 2007 at the internationally acclaimed Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in the US (more on this later), Visal returned to Cambodia and has led our GHFE monitoring efforts ever since.

He greets us warmly outside the airport and we travel together in to the town of Siem Reap, which will be our base for the next few days before we head out to the swamp. I receive a message from another team member (Angela), who had been delayed on the runway in Fairbanks, Alaska in -40° which meant she had missed her flight connection and was now stuck on the west coast of America waiting for the next available flight. Fortunately our fieldwork schedule was flexible and had been designed with in-built contingency plans for exactly this reason. As it turned out, it was actually extremely fortuitous that we were in town for longer than we had expected…

A typical street scene in downtown Siem Reap

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