Thursday, December 27, 2007

Sharing Talents Abroad

This article appeared in the Lincoln County News yesterday and its a look at a local Maine and Lincoln Country couple in the US who are doing their utmost to protect wildlife and promote education about habitat and endangered species preservation in Cambodia. I met Karen when I visited the Sam Veasna Center in Siem Reap and she and her husband are doing great work.

Whitefield Couple Shares Talents Abroad - by Lucy L. Martin (The Lincoln County News, USA)
How about a bowl of salted crickets? You'd eat this popular Cambodian snack if you were in league with ardent conservationists and bird lovers Karen and Paul "Howie" Nielsen of Whitefield, trying to save precious habitat in that southeast Asian country. The Nielsens have been living and traveling in Thailand and Cambodia since 2006 and became involved with the Sam Veasna Center for Wildlife Conservation, located in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Both are helping the international Wildlife Conservation Society protect wildlife and promote education about habitat and endangered species preservation in this corner of the world. On the path to this goal is learning the customs and sharing the food locals eat, including simply prepared fish and those afore-mentioned crickets. The route itself is ecotourism.
Howie, a passionate bird watcher, traveled the world even before retiring from his Augusta dental practice several years ago. Occasionally volunteering to remove tartar from the teeth of bears and primates, he specializes in bird walks. This activity is linked to training Cambodians about the wealth that surrounds them and how they can both protect and benefit from it. He is teaching them about the variety of habitats so they and their fellow villages can become guides, leading international tourists into those areas themselves and generating an income. Part of this deal for building a new economy is that villagers stop an age-old practice: killing the birds around them. Last spring Karen (pictured above) agreed to be temporary director at the Veasna Center. The center was founded in 2003 by the former head of the provincial wildlife office who initiated conservation efforts being carried out today.
During a visit home in October, Karen showed a video presentation about ecotourism opportunities in Cambodia. After 30 years of war and revolution, she said, the country has become a peaceful and attractive place to live, visit and invest. Though there has been habitat loss through development, there are "still opportunities for preserving parts of their national heritage. They're trying to get a roof on it." Seeing the value of what they have and teaching them to take charge of developing ecotourism are key goals. She showed pictures of the Angkor Wat complex with temples dating from the year 800. Friezes of birds and other animals adorn these ancient structures, which draw as many as two million tourists a year. There are so many temples "you couldn't see them all in a month," she said. The birds are "incredible," both in number and appearance, she added.
Koreans make up the vast majority of temple visitors. Most of the birders, however, are Europeans and Canadians. For the most part, Americans still aren't comfortable traveling in southeast Asia, Karen said. Among the endangered and rare bird species are the Sarus Crane, the Giant Ibis, Milky Stork, Spot-billed Pelican and White-rumped Vulture. One of Sam Veasna's big achievements was having an area populated by the Sarus Crane protected by royal decree. The type of forest where Howie trains local guides used to cover both Cambodia and Vietnam. Home to an endangered species of leopard, the so-called dry diptocarp forest is disappearing. There is a lot of illegal timber harvesting, Karen said, and a population explosion is taking place. There are plans to convert a forested national park into a golf course and resort. Time is critical. According to the Sam Veasnu website, part of rapidly changing Cambodia contains "the largest remaining intact block of a unique landscape that once covered much of Indochina," comparable to the African savannas. Karen said birders can arrange trips to these special places by contacting the center here.

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