Laos: Ecotourism motivates villagers to conserve wildlife

VIENTIANE, Aug 11 (The Vientiane Times/ANN): Benefits generated by ecotourism in northern Laos have helped people to make a change from hunting and consuming wildlife to conserving endangered species, an expert in the field has said.

The Nam Et-Phou Louey National Park has become a model project for developing ecotourism in Laos as it benefits more than 2,000 households in 26 villages, representing one-third of all villages located within the park.

Country Programme Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Dr Santi Saypanya told Vientiane Times recently that ecotourism positively impacts almost everyone in the local community.

The income from tourism benefits villagers, who sell food and other products to visitors, and the village development fund, and it also finances other conservation activities.

“We observe that animal species in ecotourism zones have increased. In 2009, visitors could see only two to three animals per trip, but in recent years, tourists can see more than 10 species per trip,” Dr Santi said.

Many more villagers have begun participating in wildlife conservation after they learnt of the benefits and earned an income by helping preserve animal species for tourism activities.

The WCS has been supporting the Nam Et-Phou Louey management since 2003 to identify the needs of villagers and to ensure wildlife preservation is done in parallel with improving the livelihoods of people living within the protected area.

The WCS has assisted in developing ecotourism products to motivate the participation of local communities in protecting biodiversity and increasing wildlife species.

In the beginning, villagers were reluctant to join the programme, but later asked to be part of the ecotourism activities after they benefited from ecotourism. Boat owners and tour guides previously relied on illegal hunting and wildlife trade for their additional revenue, but have now moved to earning additional income from wildlife tourism.

While Nam Et-Phou Louey villagers primarily depended on upland cultivation and animal husbandry, their lives changed with the launch of the ecotourism programme a decade ago. Today wildlife conservation tourism creates the much-needed additional revenue during the agriculture low season.

According to Dr Santi, each tourist spends about 1.5 million kip to experience the Nam Nern Night Safari in Huameuang district, Huaphan province - a 24-hour boat-based tour into the core of the national park.

The trip involves night-time wildlife spotlighting, with long-tail boats drifting down the river looking for wild and endangered animals such as sambar deer, dhole the endangered wild dog, muntjacs, multiple civet species, spotted linsang, leopard cat, Burmese python, otters and numerous bird species, including Blyth’s Kingfisher and the Mountain Hawk Eagle.

Visitors stay overnight in jungle bungalows, and other activities on this tour include short hiking to learn about the medical plants as well as to visit an old stupa and the ranger sub-station.

Ecotourism services are now available in Nam Et-Phou Louey National Park in Huaphan and Luang Prabang provinces. Following the successes of the Nam Nern Night Safari, wildlife focused trekking tours opened in 2016 in Hiam and Viengkham districts.

These treks offer visitors an opportunity to feel as field-biologists for few days as they identify proof of wildlife and verify the camera traps set up along the trails guided by the National Park guide and the community guide, a former-hunter.

A WCS staff member based in Nam Et-Phou Louey National Park, Khamkeo Thor, said when the night safari started, in the first years, less than 90 visitors joined the tour. In 2019 more than 500 tourists (90 per cent of them foreigners) took part in ecotourism activities.

However, as Nam Et-Phou Louey is a very fragile and high biodiversity area, ecotourism team believes that “Less is More”, and is aiming to attract small visitor groups that deliver high benefits for communities and the National Park.

Since Nam Et-Phou Louey still faces the threat of hunting and trafficking of endangered species, it is critical to create better understanding among the villagers to motivate them to be part of wildlife conservation and ecotourism activities. - The Vientiane Times/Asian News Network
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