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Jungle Diary: Tracking Wildlife in Lao

June 1, 2007

June 1, 2007Nanda Gasparini works in the External Affairs Department of the World Bank, based in Lao PDR. Originally from Venezuela, she has been working in the World Bank for three years, and has been based in the Lao Country Office for the past eight months. Below are excerpts from the diary she kept during her trip to the Nakai Nam Theun National Protected Area as part of a World Bank supervision mission in Feb. 2007.

Day one: From Vientiane to the Nakai Plateau – Feb. 4, 2007

Wow, it’s cold! Who would’ve thought I’d ever be cold living in Lao, but it’s nearly zero degrees where I am….

I’m here in the Nakai Plateau (Khammouane province), in central Lao People’s Democratic Republic(PDR), with another World Bank colleague, a Senior Biodiversity Specialist for the East Asia region, who’s a biologist by training and therefore a rare species himself at the World Bank. He (Tony) has been working in the Nam Theun 2 (NT2) project for the past nine years, and has been closely involved with the protection of the Nakai Nam Theun National Protected Area (the NT2 Watershed, part of the project) – which brings me to why I’m here….

Tony and I, together with two colleagues from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Arlyne and Jim, will be spending the next six days trekking through the Lao jungle, joining wildlife monitoring groups to view wildlife and assess how the surveying program is working.

I’m excited! Time to sleep as tomorrow we have an early start.

Day two: From Nakai to Tha Phai Ban – Feb. 5, 2007

The journey begins. This morning we had an early meeting with the Watershed Management and Protection Authority (WMPA, the entity managing the protected area) and then hopped on a canoe for a one-hour journey up the Nam Theun River.

One could not have asked for a better day: beautiful blue sky, cool weather, gorgeous views of the river, and interesting birds crossing our path. Once we reached Kaeng Maeo (translated as “Cat Rapids”), a stop along the Nam Theun, we had some sticky rice --the Lao staple-- and dried buffalo meat for lunch, and started our two-hour walk to avoid the river rapids.

Once back on another boat at the top of the rapids, we (Arlyne, Tony, Jim and I, plus Lakhon and Buaseng, two colleagues who work at the WMPA and the District Governor’s Office, respectively), went along for another two hours – by now my legs are a bit cramped – until we reached Tha Phai Ban around 5pm. Tha Phai Ban is one of the villages inside the National Protected Area, and the WMPA is working with them, as well as with the rest of the villages, to help them improve their living standards.

We quickly bathed in the river to take advantage of the remaining warmth and sunlight, and settled into Mr. Teuang’s house, the head of the village, where we’d be sleeping.

There were about 25 of us in Mr. Teuang’s pleasant Lao house, with a big area where we all kindled around the fire drinking hot water and the very famous rice whisky, ‘lao lao’ (impossible to escape in a Lao village).

The villagers were very welcoming: the kids staring wide-eyed at us, laughing when I smiled at them, the women helping prepare the food, and the men encouraging us to drink more as we told stories (mainly Arlyne and Jim, my Lao is not that great yet), and waited for the chicken to be killed and cooked. Around 9 pm we got into our sleeping bags and went to bed.

Day three: From Tha Phai Ban to Camp 6 – Feb. 6, 2007

Up at 6 am, pack, enjoy some nice instant coffee Arlyne brought, some sticky rice with chicken left over from last night, and ready to go!

Today was a “point A” to “point B” day, meaning our main goal was to get to Camp 6, sixteen kilometers away from Tha Phai Ban, to join the groups working on the wildlife monitoring (the “transect” teams) – the reason why we’re here!

The walk wasn’t bad at all. We stopped about half way to have some lunch and got to camp by 4:30 pm. The forest is so beautiful, there’s so much energy! We walked through some villages, each with their own map pointing to what part of the protected area they live in and which parts they use for agriculture, to hunt, gather forest products, and which areas they fully protect. I also got to practice my Lao with my WMPA and government friends, which was a nice little extra benefit for me!

Once at camp, we set up our tents, had a bath in freezing Nam Che river (I thought I’d lose a toe!) and had dinner of freshly-caught fish and sticky rice. My favorite part was the meng da geo, a gel-like substance in which to dip the rice, except this one was made of crushed, dry insects (much tastier than it sounds!)

After dinner, the twenty-or-so of us that were there sat around the fire and more formally introduced ourselves and why we were here. The group we joined is led by Mr. Xaypanya, who works for the WMPA, and is made up of village men who are hired by the WMPA to conduct the wildlife surveys that are being carried out with the help of WCS. WCS trains the men to conduct the surveys, thereby building their capacity to monitor and manage the protected area, and it also serves as a way to give the villagers a different source of income (in protecting vs. hunting the wildlife… a long tradition across Lao PDR).

The main objective of the wildlife survey is to assess the abundance of five types of species in four different 200 km2 areas in the NT2 Watershed. There are four of these “sampling” areas located throughout the NT2 Watershed.  In each, 120 different transects are carried out by four to six teams of three-persons each, each transect lasting four days (so roughly each group completes 30 transects or so). Each of the four “sampling” areas takes one dry season to complete and then the cycle is repeated, so that each area is sampled once every four years.

Each day, the team walks along a ‘transect’ – a straight line which has been demarcated – and records what they see and hear and when, focused on five types of wildlife: Douc Langur, macaques, Black Giant Squirrel, White-cheeked Gibbons and hornbills.

So tomorrow we will join one of these teams and hopefully will be able to see some wildlife!

Day four: Camp 6 – Feb. 7, 2007

Although this was my first transect ever, and our first transect here, it was the team’s second day. We woke up at 5:30 am, had breakfast, and left for the transect just before 7 am. Arlyne and I joined one group, while Tony and Jim joined another. In each group there are generally three people (usually men in this case): the leader and another “observer” (looking out for species) and a guard (just in case).

The idea of the transect is to cover about two kilometers of territory, in a straight line (which is set up on the first day following GPS location and compass bearing), slowly and quietly, listening and looking out for the species. Why five types in our case? According to Arlyne, they chose these five because they generally are relatively easy to either hear or see in this forest but are also some of the most threatened by hunting – a big concern in the NT2 Watershed.

The aim of the survey is, then, to measure the abundance of these five species over each transect, repeating it every four years, for 30-years (the period financed by the Nam Theun 2 Power Company), which will allow the WMPA to track whether wildlife levels have been maintained, increased or decreased (and thereby assess whether protection efforts are working).

Ok, so back to what I saw, very exciting! First we saw a Hog Badger, not one of the species we were looking for but apparently one that usually is not very easy to see (of course, I have no idea), and also 20 Douc Langurs. The Douc Langurs are only found in Lao and in Vietnam, and we saw 20! Incredible! They are bigger than a usual monkey, and have a great, large, white beard and red fur on their legs. The rest is black, white and grey.  The white is on the rump and tail, which looks as though they were wearing white underpants.

Now we’re back at camp. We bathed (I froze again) and are sitting by the fire with the Lao villagers comparing notes on what we saw. Pretty soon we’ll have some dinner and go to sleep.

Day five: Camp 6 – Feb. 8, 2007

Second day of transect for us and third for the team. Arlyne and I joined a different group today, while Tony and Jim joined our group from yesterday. Our most interesting viewings today were Brown Hornbills – big birds about 70 centimeters tall, with a tucan-like beak, and sitting very high up in the trees – and a Giant Black Squirrel, just sitting there, with its large, bushy tail that made it look kinda like a skunk from where I was sitting (with my binoculars about 200 meters away.) The animals were so beautiful! I never imagined getting this excited about seeing a bird, squirrel or monkey, particularly when they are hundreds of meters away! But it’s exciting stuff! Like Tony says… the “WOW” factor: that moment when you first say “wow” and your perspective changes forever….

Perhaps almost as amazing as seeing the wildlife is noting the talent of these men in spotting things that are hundreds of meters away (granted they used to hunt for a living). While they have binoculars as well, they mainly spot the animals with their bare eyes, it’s incredible! I could barely see the hornbill at first, and they could just tell from hundreds of meters away, that high up on a tree, was a silhouette next to some leaves (which was a hornbill). I guess Arlyne and Tony are right; these are just the skills that they develop on a daily basis.

Back at camp we follow the same routine from yesterday: bath and sit around the fire. I asked Arlyne and Tony why it wasn’t as easy as I first imagined spotting the wildlife, and they explained that it’s probably due to heavy hunting, meaning less animals to see and also that they are more careful at hiding from view. Hopefully the WMPA’s protection efforts will allow the wildlife to recover….

After dinner we gathered around and thanked the transect team for hosting us, and got and gave feedback on what’s working, what’s not, how things can be improved and what type of support is needed. I was also able to talk to and interview some of them, with the help of Jim’s useful translation skills, which was a good way to get a sense of what they thought of the work they were doing.

Tomorrow will be the last day of this trip, and even though there is still one more day left, I can’t help but feel a bit nostalgic already about leaving Camp 6. Like I told the group today (in Lao!) this was a terrific experience for me, my first time in the Nam Theun 2 Watershed… I learned so much from the group and got to see a lot of very neat wildlife (exciting stuff!) I may sound a bit naïve here, but it’s true, this was an incredibly enjoyable and eye-opening experience to view wildlife, understand the importance of conservation and experience the day-in day-out work to preserve a unique area like the NT2 Watershed, surrounded by an incredibly passionate group of people who deeply believe in what they are doing! Ok, time to hit the sleeping bag!

Day six: From Camp 6 to Ban Navang – Feb. 9, 2007

This morning we, sadly, had to make our way out of the forest. We had our breakfast and left around 6:30 am as the transect teams were leaving to do their last day (day four) of their surveying in this area (tomorrow they’ll move to a new location).

The walk on the trail back was absolutely stunning. It is such a beautiful forest, it’s hard to describe and no adjective would probably ever do it justice. On the walk back we got lucky again and saw some Douc Langurs! They really are amazing creatures. And they sure make some giant leaps as they make their way from tree to tree.

We stopped midway to have lunch, and reached Ban Navang shortly after 3 pm (about a 16-kilometer walk from Camp 6, towards the opposite direction than Tha Phai Ban). Ban Navang is a very nice, but very poor, village of about 310 people. With support from the WMPA they have been able to build water wells, a school, and the typical “toilet houses” you see in Lao villages: small, little houses made up of wood and palm leaves with a squat toilet. They also have some water wells where Arlyne and I bathed today.

Now I’m sitting here, it’s past 6 pm, and I realized just how tired I am! I’m also exhilarated by the last couple of days. It was a very enriching trip, where I saw a whole different side of the NT2 project – a whole different side of life even – that I knew very little about. I’m fascinated by the passion and professionalism of my World Bank and WCS colleagues, and the whole WMPA and the villagers working on the transect teams, and their commitment to protect this wonderful and extraordinary forest, and in awe of all the beautiful species of wildlife I saw, the immensity of the jungle, and the opportunity to live side-by-side with villagers for five days seeing how they live, how they cook their meals, earn a living and view and experience life.