After enduring years of bloodshed and oppression under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodia now hosts growing numbers of nature-seeking tourists who come to discover some of the largest wilderness areas remaining in Asia.
Thirty miles later we arrive in Tmatboey, whose 237 families would still languish in grinding poverty but for their natural setting: flat grasslands shaded by old-growth hardwoods and pocked by trapeangs, or seasonal waterholes. To preserve this landscape, ideal habitat for the elusive giant and white-shouldered ibis, the WCS established a simple community-based ecotourism project in 2004. Tmatboey's subsistence farmers pledged to stop converting more forest into rice paddies in certain areas and to cease poaching. In return, the group built a rustic, solar-powered complex with four duplex cabins catering to adventure-minded birders, while the nonprofit Sam Veasna Center trained locals as guides and lodge staff. Members of 33 families now work directly for the project. To benefit other villagers, the WCS developed "Ibis Rice," an initiative that purchases the crop at a fair-trade price from farmers who abide by the conservation rules. The wildlife-friendly brand is then packaged and sold to top-end restaurants, hotels, and gift shops in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. This year 43 Tmatboey farmers harvested 57 tons of Ibis Rice. The village committee also receives a $30 community fee from every birder looking for an ibis, and uses this revenue to improve Tmatboey's infrastructure and help pay for nest identification and protection. There is much upgrading to do. Beyond the reach of cell phone towers and power lines, Tmatboey is as off-the-grid as it gets: raised huts made from wooden planks; a few shops stocked with goods sold by itinerant peddlers; candle or battery power at night.
Dawn is the best time to spot ibis, so we're in the truck by 5 a.m. and plowing through foot-deep mud--the result of a stupendous overnight downpour--two miles west of the settlement. Either ibis would be an exceptional encounter. Each species' estimated global population numbers only a few hundred birds, owing to hunting, deforestation, and wetlands drained for agriculture. The giant ibis, a dark-gray bird topping 40 inches, and the white-shouldered ibis, which measures 30 inches and has a distinctive pale collar, are also extremely wary, shifting nests and roosts at the first hint of human disturbance.
In the mid-afternoon heat we hike muddy forest trails to another potential site one mile south of camp. Our local guide, Yin Sary, scouted white-shouldered ibis here yesterday; he cautions that they often relocate roosts after heavy rains. But if anyone can find these evasive birds, it is this 43-year-old farmer.
With a masterful eye, he scans the woodland, directing my gaze to dozens of colorful birds, including the iridescent purple sunbird and the greater yellownape woodpecker, a handsome olive bird with a dashing yellow crest. Sary also describes a 2004 incident a few miles away, where he fended off a nighttime leopard attack. He mimics the predator's growl and shows me the scars the big cat left on his arm and chest. "The leopard is still there,'' he tells me. "I've seen tracks in the paddy, one kilometer from Tmatboey.''
But the father of four says he no longer hunts; wildlife generates revenue his village would otherwise never enjoy. "Foreigners pay $30 to see the ibis,'' says Sary, who also earns $5 every day he guides. "I never imagined this.''
It's still more than 90 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade at 5 p.m. when we reach the recent ibis roost, a dead 60-foot-tall tree. We stake out 100 yards to the west and await the skittish birds. Gregarious flocks of Alexandrine parakeets break the silence, while swooping red-rumped swallows hunt for insects. Mony focuses a hoopoe in his scope; I'm so taken by its jaunty crest I don't notice a white-shouldered ibis landing 10 yards away. Almost immediately, the restive ibis takes wing. With barely more than 400 birds in existence, I've squandered a perfect sighting.
"We wait a while," Mony whispers.
Half an hour later the drone of cicadas is cut by an unearthly bugling shriek. Not one, not even two, but four white-shouldered ibis skim the canopy and land in the roost, silhouetted against a rising, nearly full moon. The birds fall silent, scanning the surrounding forest and cautiously inspecting the branches sagging beneath their weight. After 10 minutes the quartet suddenly flies off into the gloaming.
In the morning we resume our search for the giant ibis. The daunting floodwaters have subsided, allowing us to hop a creek and walk a mile of mucky paddy dikes to a marsh bristling with old, dead trees. But the giant ibis has once again changed roosts. I'm beginning to think it is just a myth. We double back to another possible site, spotting other large, wondrous birds, including a crested serpent eagle, which preys on snakes and lizards. A changeable hawk-eagle dives so close that I can feel the whoosh of its broad, beating wings.
Sary stops, listens, nods. Somewhere to the east, lost in the molten sunrise, comes a faint, trumpeting taunt: a-leurk a-leurk. Giant ibis.
We trek through open forest, passing a resin tapper riding an oxcart. Tmatboey's mature hardwoods are also a woodpecker's dream. With 16 different recorded species, this forest has some of the highest woodpecker diversity on the planet. Chief among them: the greater flameback, a bird distinguished by its rust-gold mantle and fire-red crest, and the great slaty, a battleship-gray beast that, at 20 inches, is the Old World's third-largest woodpecker. Striking, but not my grail bird.