Prek Toal is a small fishing community of about 800 families situated along the Sang Ke River in Battambang Province. Each family lives in a floating house and about half of them depend upon Beng, the fishing lot operator, for their livelihood.
Prek Toal is, however, at the same time the core area of the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve, designated in 1997 by UNESCO as a major wildlife sanctuary.
One may wonder how a village of some 2000 people, interconnected with a commercial fishing venture can exist within the confines of a natural reserve. Two factors seem to ensure the protection of wildlife in the region from the onslaught of mass tourism:
It is in the interests of the fishing lot operators to ensure sustainability of both fish and birds and although not all activities comply with recent legislation there seems to be a genuine awareness that brutal exploitation will destroy whatever chances of survival the villagers may have.
- the continuously changing water level of the lake
- the village’s status as a commercial fishing lot
Prek Toal boasts a modest supermarket, a local hairdresser, a police station, a local borough council, crocodile farms, a first-aid centre, two schools - almost anything can be found in the village.
In recent years, as Cambodia opens to the rest of the world, tourism and commercial pressures have begun to change traditional village life. According to Oehn, about 60% of the villagers now realise that they have to protect the wildlife that surrounds them.
With only 25 villagers employed as rangers and only half employed by the fishing industry, many families have pinned their hopes on eco-tourism as a future source of employment for their children. Most parents were prevented from going to school by the Khmer Rouge and there is only one person in the village who speaks English. But the word is getting around that their only hope for survival lies in the sustainability of natural resources. If they can protect the fish, the birds and the habitat in and around Prek Toal they, too, will survive.