2020 has truly been a year like no other. A promising year completely turned on its head in the wake of the COVID-19 global epidemic that continues to impact the tourism industry like no other challenge that has been faced before. Sam Veasna Conservation Tours (SVC) has certainly felt these effects but 2020 has seen a myriad of positives as well as the obvious negatives. Here is the full review and reflection of SVC’s 2020.
New Name, New Year
We begin ‘smack-bang’ in the middle of the birding high-season in Cambodia (October – March). Our ‘super tours’ largely delivered with happy customers including welcoming back our good friends at Birdtour Asia for the Cambodia part of their 15-day South-East Asia birding tour. This trip covered the magnificent temples of Angkor, Tonle Sap & Grasslands, the Cardamom Mountains, and the Northern Plains with bird highlights including the Spot-bellied Eagle Owl, Giant Ibis, Bengal Florican, White-rumped Falcon, and White-winged Duck. Indeed, a great start to the year!
Birdtour Asia Group in Siem Reap
March marked an exciting step forward for SVC and our partners – we relaunched under our new name of Sam Veasna Conservation Tours (previously Sam Veasna Center) after our incorporation in early Late February. This was a planned move (pre-pandemic of course) to take the SVC model, our guides and community partners forward in an exciting new entity as Cambodia’s only registered bird tour company.
In the beginning of our first month as Sam Veasna Conservation Tours we welcomed regular streams of passionate birders and nature lovers to experience some of the best half-day and single-day trip opportunities in and around Siem Reap. Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary continued to be a popular option as one of South-East Asia’s truly breathtaking natural wonders as well as the temples of Koh Ker and Beng Mealea. However, as we got into March the severity of the pandemic became apparent to all and we canceled all trips at the end of the month and supported clients already in Cambodia in getting home safely cutting some trips short tragically.
Responding to a Global Pandemic
News of the pandemic brought much concern to our team with the first case confirmed in Cambodia in early March. With the pandemic spreading globally, the government was left with no choice but to enforce travel bans. With the decision to put our tours to a halt, it was an intense week for our team who worked swiftly to support our international clients. While relieved that all of our clients made it home safely, the beginning of the global pandemic left us with great uncertainty for what the future held for our community.
One of the biggest concerns was how a lockdown and economic disruption would impact our conservation efforts. Our worst fears were met when a single deliberate poisoning event killed 3 critically endangered Giant Ibis (the equivalent of 1-2% of the global population) in Chhep Wildlife Sanctuary. This disturbing news further demonstrated the urgency of our network’s commitment to supporting rural communities on the front line in our mission to protect vulnerable wildlife and habitats.
Adapting to a New Normal
Despite putting our tours on hold, our team managed to stay quite busy operating other aspects of SVC, such as conducting our biodiversity surveys, expanding community support, conducting site visits and preparing Covid-19 protocols. One of the highlights from Spring last year was the First Masked Finfoot Expedition, where a team of SVC guides, WCS conservationists and local rangers set off deep in the jungle of Kulen Prum Tep wildlife sanctuary in search of one of Cambodia’s rarest birds species. This is with the goal of creating the first Cambodia Masked Finfoot tour for 2021 and replicating our tourism model for local communities.
After 3 months of few cases and no community spread , we were fortunate enough to gradually reopen our SVC office by July. With the entire tourism industry impacted by global restrictions on international travel, our focus quickly shifted towards the domestic market leading development of the first ever Phnom Penh Birding Tour offering local residents the unique opportunity to discover amazing birdlife on the outskirts of the city!
Lead Guide Mony Sang on the first Masked Finfoot Expedition
Eyes on New Sites
With our new city birding tours gaining popularity in Phnom Penh, we were delighted to receive even more great news. In November, the community of Tmat Boey (our flagship site) received an award from the Ministry of Environment for Outstanding Contribution towards the Protection of Landscapes and Protected Areas. This period also brought some fantastic sightings with a flock of Green Peafowl roosting Mondulkiri as well as a Giant Ibis incubating in a nest in Tmat Boey.
November was also a month of new discoveries as our team explored Koh Samseb (a community run ecotourism site on the Mekong River between Kratie and Stung Treng) as part of the SVC mandate to seek new sites for birders. Not only were the team treated with fantastic views of target species (such as Green Peafowl, White-rumped Pygmy Falcon, Mekong Wagtail, and the critically endangered White-shouldered Ibis), it was a wonderful bonding experience for our guides and operational staff.
We ended the year with a brand new edition to the SVC experience which was our very own customised luxury ‘Goyung’, a tractor pulled vehicle used by local farmers. Offering birders a unique way to experience the Cambodian outdoors, we outfitted a one-of-a-kind vehicle offering a more comfortable way to go off-track and witness the exciting wildlife like never before!
First ride on our brand new luxury Goyung
Heads up for 2021
As we venture into a new and uncertain year, we welcome 2021 with our heads held high. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that our commitment and work to support our communities and conservation efforts are needed more than ever.
We would especially like to thank our tourism partners Birdtour Asia, Naturetrek, Vietnam Birding, Wilderness Birding, Wings, and our entire community for supporting us. We will embrace 2021 and look forward to seeing you all soon!
Our team during our visit to Koh Samseb Community-based ecotourism site
SUPPORT THE PROTECTION OF CAMBODIA’S WILDLIFE
If you would like to join our journey into 2021 by supporting out conservation activities, please consider visiting our donation page.