Cambodia’s rugged outback and surplus of rare and endangered wildlife and sprawling natural beauty is set to become more accessible, thanks to a unique partnership. Marissa Carruthers finds out more.

A large shadow soars through the sky, its distinct red head standing out from the wide-spanning, still wings as the vulture gracefully swoops towards the expanse of grassland. Cautiously, it glances out at the surrounding terrain before eagerly tearing pieces of raw meat from a cow’s carcass.

It’s a rare sight in Cambodia, with vultures listed on the critically-endangered species list, but one that looks set to receive a boost after a joint venture between NGO Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Building Trust International (BTI).

The two organisations have been working together to create a series of initiatives to nurture the country’s dwindling wildlife populations, while providing visitors with a rare insight into barely touched parts and a sustainable income to poverty-stricken communities.

Dongphlet Vulture Reserve is one of a number of sites under-going or awaiting a mass makeover. Lack of food is the main reason for the vulture decline but in a bid to boost bird numbers, in 2004 a series of organisations teamed together to create a series of bird feeding sites.

Currently, the WCS-run reserve, which sits in Preah Vihear protected forest, is home to a basic ‘vulture restaurant’, with camping for visitors. However, in a bid to attract more people and increase income for both villagers and WCS funds, the NGO and BTI, with technical aid from USAID’s Supporting Forest and Biodiversity project, have set about giving the area a radical revamp.

After community consultations, BTI designed a hide, lodge and watchtower to compliment the environment and provide ripe settings for both avid twitchers and the rare birds. “Our aim is to integrate livelihoods with conservation,” says David Cole, BTI director.

The result, to be built this year after a final fundraising drive has been carried out, will present a low-lying hide to allow close-up viewing. The design blends in with the natural surroundings using recycled and locally sourced materials, and the green, ‘living’ roof and concealed entrance ensures animals are left to roam their habitat undisturbed.

The lodge, which will run on green energy, will feature bedrooms, resting areas and a restaurant. The tower has a high vantage point over the wide grassland and will offer sprawling views across the countryside as well as the perfect spot to watch sunset and sunrise.

“The natural setting of this project warranted a truly sustainable approach, driving us to source all materials from a 10km radius. Built by the local community for local people ensuring the future of generations.” Cole adds.

Tmat Boey eco-lodge is a prime example of how sustainable building works. Accepting its first guests late last month, the project saw BTI again work with villagers to create and build a concept for the new facility, which is located in Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary and managed by the Ministry of Environment.

Birdwatchers from across Asia and beyond flock to Cambodia to catch a glimpse of two of the world’s rarest birds: the giant ibis and white-shouldered ibis. The birds’ nesting grounds sit at the outskirts of the rural village of Tmat Boey, where the ground-breaking project has turned village farmers into custodians of the natural habitats the wildlife around them inhabit.

Made from natural materials, such as earth and bamboo, recycled plastic bottles were used to help create a staircase to reach the lodge, while educating locals on the importance of recycling and reusing materials.

Simon Mahood, of WCS Cambodia, says, “Most visitors are foreign so we wanted to create a place to show the natural beauty. We also needed to find something that architecturally interprets that while making it modern, using traditional techniques.”

This year, Cambodia’s national reptile, the royal turtle, or batagur affins, will also be made more accessible to visitors, thanks to a scheme set to run in Sre Ambel. Living in brackish waters that slice through the forest, the giant turtles rely on mangroves to survive. However, through illegal logging, poaching, dwindling resources and predators, numbers have drastically declined.

A WCS-run breeding centre operates in the area, where locals are encouraged to protect nests until hatching, when baby turtles are safely delivered to the facility in return for a small sum of money.

Here, they are monitored and looked after until strong enough to be released back into the wild. BTI has once again been called in to help design and create a new facility and visitor centre to enhance the area and attract more visitors.

“WCS and BTI share a set of core values, valuing high-quality outputs with a commitment to sustainability. We also share a similar approach; community consultation is at the heart of what we do.

“Their beautiful, functional and sustainable designs help us increase the benefits that remote communities receive from the biodiversity values of the areas where they live and we work,” adds Ross Sinclair, WCS Cambodia director.