Thanks to the arrival of a friendly flock of great hornbills, Hour Rithy, a former aviculturist – or raiser of birds – in Kratie province turned Phnom Penh tuk tuk driver, has seen a partial return to his former profession.
He has become something of a guide for the local and international visitors who come to feed the unique birds each day in front of the Electricite du Cambodge (EDC) building near Wat Phnom in Daun Penh district.
Ny Sophanna, a Phnom Penh resident, approached him and asked, “What time will the hornbills come down to feed?”
“Yesterday I was passing by Wat Phnom, and I saw a lot of hornbills were eating food out of the hands of visitors, so I thought I would bring my son here so he could get to know this unique wild bird. Some people say they bring good fortune,” she said.
Sophanna and her husband, along with their seven-year-old son, had brought grapes to feed to the birds, even though they would not normally purchase them for themselves.
Each day Rithy parks his tuk tuk, laden with bananas, and awaits the magnificent birds.
Feeding hornbills in front of the EDC has become a popular attraction for many people who want to learn more about the birds – as well as take selfies.
People begin to arrive at around 5pm, often – like Sophanna – bringing their families and children along.
At around 5:30, Rithy begins to imitate the call of the hornbill, signalling them that it is time for them come down and feed.
One by one, up to ten of the large birds soar down and perch on the railings and statues outside the EDC, seemingly with no fear of humans.
One by one, they accept gifts of grapes and bananas from the assembled visitors.
Rithy told The Post that the flock was sometimes made up of a mix of great hornbills and the smaller wreathed hornbill.
He urged visitors to take bananas from his tuk tuk to feed the birds, saying they were welcome to pay what they thought fair into a basket next to his vehicle.
“I don’t care if people give me money or not – I feed these magnificent birds bananas every day. If visitors put money in my basket, I will use it to buy more bananas tomorrow,” said the 50-year-old.
He explained that he has been feeding the birds for almost a whole year, and is happy to spend his own money to do so.
“I spend about 20,000 riel a day to buy five or six bunches of bananas. Sometimes it takes away all of the profit from my tuk tuk, but I am happy to do it as I am a bird lover, and I understand that they are endangered,” he said.
According to the bird-loving tuk-tuk driver, many people who take his fruit to feed the birds do not contribute to their cost.
“I very rarely receive more than 13,000 riel per day from the assembled visitors, but I don’t care. Tomorrow, I will drive my tuk tuk until I have enough to feed the hornbills again,” he added.
Bou Vorsak, president of BirdLife International in Cambodia, said neither his organisation nor the government have a conservation plan in place for the great hornbill.
“There are more species of hornbills in Malaysia, Thailand and India, and they have established protective programmes there,” he told The Post.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Hun Sen referred to his nephew Hun To, who has a private flock of the magnificent birds at his home in Phnom Penh.
“Phnom Penh residents are used to seeing the beautiful hornbills that he releases to fly all over the city,” he said on March 1.
Opinions are divided as to whether the flock which appears at Wat Phnom is related, or whether To’s flock have begun to repopulate the wild spaces of the capital.
Whatever their origin, Rithy is pleased to see his feathered friends return each day.
“I urge visitors – especially young children – not to startle these delightful creatures. If we frighten them, they may stop coming down to eat with us,” he said.