June 1, 2007—A small country with some of the most diverse and rare wildlife in the world, Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) is one of Southeast Asia’s hidden biological treasures. Through its protected areas, the country is working to ensure that the magic and wonders of its jungles don’t disappear.
Home to the highest number of large mammals in Southeast Asia, including species like the Large-antlered Muntjac, the Indochinese Tiger and the Douc Langur – a type of monkey only found in Lao and northern Vietnam – the country also has possibly the largest Asian Elephant population in Indochina.
Even more impressively, many species new to science have been discovered in recent years, including mammals like the Annamite Striped Rabbit, one of the rarest species of rabbit in the world, and the Saola (a forest animal related to antelope and cows). The most recent revelation has been the Laotian Rock Rat, living in limestone areas, which is not closely related to common rats but actually belongs to an ancient family of rodents that until last year was thought to be extinct for 11 million years. Such discoveries place Lao PDR among one of the few countries in the world where several entirely new species of large mammals have been found in recent years.
“The unique biodiversity that is present in Lao PDR is extraordinary,” says Arlyne Johnson, Co-Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in Lao PDR. “But the country’s enigmatic, difficult to spot and little known species are also highly endangered.”
In order to protect wildlife and the country’s biodiversity as a whole, 20 National Protected Areas, covering more than 14 percent of the country’s total territory, have been set up according to the “Lao Environment Monitor”. The remoteness of these areas contributes to wildlife protection, but hunting and wildlife trade – in response to both Lao traditions and international market demand – pose a critical threat to the treasures found in Lao’s jungles.
To address this, there is a renewed interest in developing and implementing management and monitoring programs for protected areas across the country. One of the most successful programs so far is taking place in what experts say is the single largest protected area in mainland Southeast Asia.
Located in the central part of the country, the Nakai Nam Theun National Protected Area — also known as the Nam Theun 2 (NT2) Watershed — is one of the most important in the world for biological and cultural diversity. The area has some of the most diverse natural and protected forest, and is probably home to one of the two largest elephant populations in Lao PDR . Its management is also gaining attention as an example of robust wildlife monitoring and protection in the country.
The NT2 Watershed is managed by the Nam Theun 2 Watershed and Management Protection Authority (WMPA), a Lao PDR Government agency which commenced operations in late 2005. The agency is the first integrated conservation and development entity of this scale in the country, and the first to make wide-ranging efforts to enforce wildlife laws and set up a systematic biodiversity monitoring system. The agency counts on a budget of US$1 million a year provided by the Nam Theun 2 Power Company (NTPC) as part of the environmental mitigation programs under the Nam Theun 2 Hydropower Project – a project supported by the World Bank.
Through its work, the WMPA has been building the capacity of its staff and of villagers living in the NT2 Watershed to conserve and protect the area’s rich biodiversity, including working to reduce the threats faced by wildlife. Some of the measures taken include:
- stronger enforcement through patrols,
- building awareness in communities of the impacts of hunting,
- providing improved livelihoods to people thereby reducing pressure on the forests, and
- demarcating protection zones that are to be managed solely for their biodiversity value.
The hope is that, as a result, wildlife species in the NT2 Watershed will have an increasingly better environment in which to thrive.
Recently, a joint team brought together World Bank and WCS staff to take a closer look at conservation and protection efforts in the NT2 Watershed. The group spent several days in the Lao jungle working with the WMPA wildlife monitoring teams to track species and assess the overall program.
“This was a stupendous opportunity for us to see firsthand how the teams are working, how the villagers have learnt to conduct the wildlife surveys and what information is being gathered,” said Anthony Whitten, a World Bank biodiversity specialist with extensive experience in wildlife protection in the region.
The WMPA, working with WCS, is conducting several methods of surveying, including using automatic cameras to record mammals at night and directly observing five target species along fixed routes during the day. The monitoring teams are usually made up of WMPA staff and villagers who live in the area, who are trained and hired by the agency.
“It’s very important for the WMPA to be doing this work because it provides information about the wildlife and it allows us to better manage the protected area,” explained Mr. Xaypanat, team leader of one of the wildlife monitoring groups, to the World Bank staff.
With the monitoring and patrolling teams set up, the WMPA is providing a good example of biodiversity conservation and protection in the country. The agency will continue implementing its monitoring, patrolling and awareness raising efforts so that its programs are sustainable and its valuable area is protected.