Tonle Sap, a huge lake which expands and contracts seasonally from 1,150 square miles to 5,000 square miles (3,000–13,000 km2), contains one of the world’s densest populations of freshwater fish. Thousands of wading birds and Waterfowl gather to reap the harvest.

Probing feet and beaks of thousands of rare and spectacular wading birds swirl shallow lake waters of Tonle Sap every spring when the lake shrinks to one-fourth its flood-swollen monsoonal size, leaving a milling soup of small fish, frogs, insects, and other nutritious aquatic organisms.  

Painted and milky storks throng lake edges with spot-billed pelicans, waterfowl, and smaller pattering shorebirds.

Tigers and leopards find homes in forests also inhabited by endangered marbled cats, pileated and buff-cheeked gibbons, Eld’s deer, and elephants. Banteng and gaur feed in forest openings.

Siamese fireback and Germain’s peacock pheasants scratch for seeds and insects on forest floors along with bright bluerumped and bar-bellied pittas, green peafowl, and giant ibis, among more than 520 bird species in this country one-third the size of France (70,238 square miles/181,916 km2). Orioles, sunbirds, and clouds of butterflies sip nectar from blossoming flame trees, lavender jacarandas, scarlet hibiscus, and fragrant pink and white lotuses, opening mornings and evenings on waterways.

Yet Cambodia is not only one of the world’s loveliest and most wildlife-rich but also environmentally and war-distressed countries, littered with bomb craters and remnants of some 40 million land mines planted in its tragic civil war in the 1970s and 80s. Its richness is due to the presence of one of the world’s most fertile floodplains—the Mekong. Its remarkable situation results from link-up of the Mekong River, 300 miles (486 km) wide in places, rising in Tibet, and the Tonle Sap River which flows seasonally from Tonle Sap Lake and drains rivers north and west.

During June–October monsoon rains, rising Mekong River waters force the Tonle Sap River to reverse its flow and the lake expands from 1,150 to 5,000 square miles (3,000–13,000 km2) and in maximum depth from 7 to 33 feet (2.2–10 m). In ensuing dry months the process reverses and lake waters drain back into the Mekong, leaving Tonle Sap with one of the world’s densest populations of freshwater fish in a bounteous aquatic ecosystem that attracts humans as well as wildlife. Grasses grow up to five feet (1.5 m) high in this rich alluvial plain surrounded by thickly forested highlands, some of it with trees 165 feet (50 m) tall.

Cambodia has gone from some 74 percent forest coverage in 1974 to 30–35 percent in 1995. By the end of 1993 more than 26,560 square miles (68,800 km2) had been allocated to timber concessions, amounting to almost all Cambodia’s forest outside protected areas—and illegal logging, land clearing, and rampant hunting have made even these not safe. Predictable results have been not only direct habitat loss but problems from overfishing, mangrove-clearing for shrimp farms, and proposed dam projects. (The tragedy is that bootleg logging has meant significant financial loss to this poor country instead of treasury gain possible from controlled timbering.)

Some of the world’s last freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins swim in the Mekong River, along with giant catfish more than 16 feet (5 m) long. Both are imperiled by uncontrolled gill-net fishing.

Gradually, however, some of Cambodia’s national parks and wildife sanctuaries are opening up with facilities for visitors. As with other threatened wildlife-rich countries, the government may come to see ecotourism benefits justifying an effort to protect priceless natural treasures.

More about the Reserves in cambodia

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