My Excellent Eco-Adventure
I recently returned from a fantastic trip to the Nam Et Phu Louey national protected area in Houaphanh province. In the protected area, local villagers are working with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the government of Lao PDR to develop eco-tourism in the area. I was able to spend the night in their lodge in the protected area and go on the night safari they operate. I had heard a lot about the rich biodiversity and beautiful jungles here, and was excited to get to see it for myself.
I started my trip in neighboring Xiengkhouang province, where I visited a local market that sometimes sells wildlife. I saw a porcupine, but not much else. Many local people depend on bush meat for subsistence, which is allowed under Lao law. Commercial wildlife sales, however, are illegal, and the Lao government is working with NGOs like WCS to help stem the trade.
After the market, I took a long and beautiful drive from Phonsavanh into Houaphan, and arrived at a boat landing to start my tour. Along with WCS staff and local guides, I took a boat up the Nam Et river, where I saw the eco lodge and enjoyed a peaceful dinner along the riverbank. Our guides cooked some delicious Lao food, accompanied of course by sticky rice. As the sun set over the jungle, we were lucky there were only a few clouds, so I could see a lot of stars.
I then floated downriver in the dark, while the local guides swung their flashlights to and fro in order to help me spot wildlife. The tour recently won a prestigious World Responsible Tourism Award because it links the revenue earned by locals with the numbers of wildlife seen during each tour. For every animal I saw (and I saw a bunch of deer, civets, and lizards), local villages got a bonus that can help fund economic development programs. As wildlife sightings increase, the locals are viewing conservation as an active and profitable partnership. Local villagers also work as guides, boatmen, cooks, and handicraft producers.
I also saw firsthand the challenges facing wildlife conservation in Laos. The protected area spans over 2300 square miles of mountainous terrain. Local villagers are allowed to harvest natural resources for subsistence in around half of the park, and because most villagers depend on subsistence activities such as small-scale agriculture and livestock, harvesting of wild meat can be an additional food source. That’s why it’s so important that this program provides an alternative revenue stream - villagers have an incentive to protect native species.
Overall, it was a highly educational experience, and a seriously fun trip. WCS staff told me the program is in its third year, and over 100 tourists had visited so far this year. The holy grail of the safari is a tiger sighting, and although I didn’t get to see one, the guides told me they’ve heard one roar near the place I had dinner. I would love to visit again with my family so they can see the jungles of Laos. Who knows, I might even get to see a tiger!