Wildlife Conservation Society Headquarters – Vieng Thong Province, 27 June
The aim of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) is to make wildlife worth more to the local Lao villagers alive than dead. Traditionally, Lao people have relied on wild animals for part of their diet and income – 50-60% of the protein for villagers comes from wild animals. As this northern region of Lao has one of the biggest wild elephant and tiger populations in Asia (and the world), it is imperative that wildlife is protected against over-killing and over-consumption.
Currently there are 24 national protected areas in Lao. Nam Et Phou Louey – where we were based – is the second largest, which covers over 6000km2. Nam Et Phou Louey is one of the most important protexted areas in Southeast Asia. The goal of WCS is to increase the population of wild tigers by 50%, as well as monitor other species under threat and educate locals about how they can keep their traditions without endangering important wildlife. WCS has been monitoring tigers since 2003, with a total of six different species of cat in the protected area, including leopards, bobcats, tigers and golden cats. 98 Villages and approximately 30 000 people border the national protected area. The majority of these people are ethnic minorities, farmers and very poor.
The major threats in this area include: over-harvesting of wild animals and plants, the illegal trade of wild animals and plants, and habitat loss due to shifting cultivation and plantations (crop rotation). In order to increase the population of animals like tigers, the aim is to increase prey abundance (and consequently, decrease the hunting of such prey by the villagers). This involves quite extensive education programs within the local populace, focusing on the understanding on national protected area regulations, the facilitation of gun control, and military camp outreach, to help with monitoring. It also includes livestock management training, to educate villagers about the importance of keeping livestock close to villagers to control the loss of large livestock to depredation.
WCS focus on Ecotourism
The presence of the Wildlife Conservation Society in the Nam Et Phou Louey National Protected Area does much more than simple conservation and education. Ecotourism has the potential to transform the area positively into a haven for wildlife, successful locals, and interested tourists. Currently, 14 villages are involved in an ecotourism project with the WCS. All families have been involved – a total of 859 families. There are direct benefits for families and villages in conservation – for each wild animal sighted, the villages receive money into their village funds. The total village earnings since 2009 are 223 535 500 kip (some USD$28 000 – an incredible achievement).
From here, the challenge is how to increase the impact of WCS, how to increase tourists in the region, and how to increase the visibility of this project abroad. Key to the projects and aims of the WCS is extending knowledge and information on their aims in the global sphere – there is a great need to increase WCS internet presence and presence in guidebooks such as Lonely Planet.
I really enjoyed the whole experience – traveling upstream with the villagers (school principal, village chief, teachers – everyone got involved!), staying overnight in jungle huts, going on a night safari to see animals (I only saw a kingfisher bird and a goanna, but that’s okay!), and eating two delicious meals prepared by the villagers and local WCS officers. I would definitely recommend it and I thought that it was really great to be able to have a positive impact on the region – its animals and people – by just being there. You can check out the national protected area’s website here: http://www.namet.org/Home.html