A Farmland Bustard Conservation Approach

Most bustards love grassland. Protecting the bustards’ last remaining grassland habitat is the best thing that we can do for them. Maybe you work somewhere where bustards still have vast areas of grassland in which to breed and feed, if so, then that’s fantastic! Make sure you get it protected, and maintain it so that it remains as grassland.

Unfortunately, in countries like Cambodia, almost all the grassland has been converted to agriculture, in fact most of the remaining areas of grassland are actually long-term rice fallows. Wild ungulates that previously maintained grassland are long gone. Like in Europe, bustards persisted for centuries because farming methods practiced were low intensity and coincidently created conditions that mimicked natural grassland. However, over the past two decades farming methods have changed. Agricultural intensification has changed the way that farmers grow the rice, and created habitat that Floricans cannot use.

We first secured remaining areas of grassland in protected areas. But these were too small for the Bengal Florican. We needed to find a way for bustards to persist in farmed lands over a much larger area. Over the past decade, with support of Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund and a range of other donors, we developed a farmland bustard conservation approach. The situation in Cambodia is extreme, but it may not be too different to the situation in the place where you work. We have made a video about this so that we can share with you what we’ve learned about working with farmers to conserve bustards. We hope that you find it helpful, let us know on the forum!

The details of how to work with farmers will vary from location to location (such as which crops or cropping system offer a combination of farmer benefits and bustard benefits are critical to get right). What works in Cambodia may not work in other locations, but the general principles will hold true. We first recommend understanding what habitat your bustards need at different stages of their life cycle, then finding out what constrains and motivates farmers, and investigating what the market wants. You’ll need people with specialist expertise: ecologists can’t do everything! Then bring this all together and create a theory of change that enables you to work towards your goal of creating suitable habitat for bustards in farmland. We urge you to move fast, because bustards can decline rapidly and farming methods can change equally fast! Test things out, get them wrong, change things and keep trying.

Farmland Bustard Conservation Approach in Cambodia

In Cambodia, Bengal Floricans are declining rapidly in line with rates of grassland loss. In the video below, three of our team introduce you to the specific situation in Cambodia and what we are doing to try and prevent the extinction of Bengal Florican.

Our approach has been to work with local farming communities at every step of the way. We first worked with the Forestry Administration and the Ministry of Environment to secure some of the most important grassland as protected areas. Because succession to scrub was a threat, we encouraged local people to graze their cattle in the protected areas. Bengal Florican need areas of short grass from which males display, and long grass in which females nest. Encroachment of protected areas for commercial rice cultivation has been always been a threat, and remains so to this day. We work with Ministry of Environment to try and protect the protected areas, but the protected grasslands will only persist if local communities value the Floricans. We needed to find a way to involve communities in conservation. Initially this was through establishing community-based ecotourism. For every birdwatcher that sees a Bengal Florican, money is paid into a community development fund, that is used to fund community projects such as school repairs. We also established community management committees, so that local people had a voice in protected area management.

But we knew that we needed to do more and benefit more people. After breeding, Bengal Floricans leave the protected areas and disperse to surrounding farmland. Owing to agricultural intensification this habitat is increasingly unsuitable for them, and they are vulnerable to hunting when on farmland. It took us a while to work out what to do and how to do it, but we have now started a project that uses the Sustainable Rice Platform as a framework for growing rice in a way that enables Floricans to also use the fields. We are doing this by farming a grassy legume after the rice crop. This benefits bustards in two ways. Firstly, it creates habitat that bustards can forage in, and secondly it reduces the need for chemical fertilizers, making the fields safer for Floricans. Our farmers agree not to hunt the birds, so we create a safe zone for them outside of protected areas. Creating suitable habitat for Bengal Florican in the non-breeding season was one part of the motivation for working with farmers. The other was that we needed to build local support for the bustards, and for protecting their remaining grassland breeding grounds. Without this support the remaining grasslands will be encroached and lost forever.

In Cambodia, our Bengal Florican conservation project has evolved over time. We have always tried new things. We haven’t got everything right yet. We’re still learning. But we think that we have a plan and a pilot that will work. The critical thing now is scale. Bustards need vast areas of habitat, so we are going to need to expand the number of farmers that we work with if we are going to start seeing results. This is one of the next challenges. The other is to try and create suitable farmland habitat in which Bengal Floricans can breed.

Using the Sustainable Rice Platform Framework

In Cambodia, most farmers grow rice. We used the Sustainable Rice Platform (SRP) Standards as a framework to design on-farm interventions to improve conditions for Bengal Florican. SRP is a global standard that has been designed to increase the sustainability of rice cultivation and consists of 46 requirements structured under 8 themes, each aimed at achieving a specific sustainability impact. Based on our experiences in Cambodia, WCS refined the biodiversity part of the standard. 

The SRP standards are intentionally a light touch, intended to be inclusive and increase sustainability at scale. The standards cover all aspects of sustainability, including climate change, profitability, women’s rights, water use, chemical use, and biodiversity. WCS and our local partner Sansom Mlup Prey (SMP) developed Cambodia’s first SRP pilot with financial support from Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund to help conserve bustards in Cambodia.

The first thing we did was to use to the SRP standards to assess and score the sustainability of the farming systems in the place where we work. This enabled us to identify areas for intervention. We evaluated how these interventions could be designed to benefit the Bengal Florican, and then piloted the interventions. Some of our interventions focus on water management: by leveling the fields, farmers can control water level more easily, which means that they do not need to use chemicals to kill pests.  We are now trialing a legume that eliminates the need for chemical fertilizer, and creates a safe foraging habitat for Bengal Floricans. We’re also working with Oxfam to mainstream gender equality into rice farming.

Farmers were willing to take part because they received agricultural support that increased the profitability of their farms. We also linked them to a buyer that wanted SRP rice, which increased the price per ton that they received for their rice. SRP is something that farmers want, which means that we can expand to the scale that we need to prevent the loss of the Floricans.

Launching IBIS Rice – A Wildlife-Friendly Rice Program

IBIS Rice is where our journey into working with farmers to protect birds began. It is a completely different approach to SRP, designed for a completely different situation in a different part of Cambodia. The Tonle Sap Inundation Zone inhabited by the Bengal Florican is a farming landscape with small patches of natural habitat. In contrast, IBIS Rice was designed for the Northern Plains of Cambodia, a vast lowland deciduous forest with small areas of rice cultivation. We developed Ibis Rice because we recognized that one of the biggest threat to that forest, and to the Critically Endangered Giant Ibis and White-shouldered Ibis that inhabit it, was small scale encroachment by rice farmers and hunting of ibis.

IBIS Rice financially rewards farmers that grow their rice according to three rules: no hunting, no forest clearance, and no chemical use. Farmers that adhere to these rules can sell their rice to IBIS Rice Ltd, and receive a 40% price premium for doing so. That rice is milled, marketed, and sold as IBIS Rice. Follow IBIS Rice on Twitter and Instagram to keep up with the story.

IBIS Rice is a rapidly growing, financially self-sustaining business. But it also benefits people and wildlife. It was the inspiration behind our farmland bustard conservation approach. Watch the video below to find out more.


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