Laos: Poacher to Protector
IMAGINE THIS: YOU ARE STANDING IN THE HEART OF A JUNGLE,
there is a canopy of green leaves that create a roof over your head, and around you, there is a hum of different insects, birds and running water. There are signs of life that pulse through the tree, plants, and earth beneath your feet. You are standing in one of the most biodiverse places in Laos. You are standing in Nam Et-Phou Louey (NEPL) National Protected Area (NPA) in Houaphan Province.
My trekking guide, Seng Bo Me, was an example of someone who could communicate the opportunities that arise from tourism development. His story was similar to other guides that were working in Nam-Et Phou Louey National Protected Area. He used to be a poacher and hunter. While he was also relying on the forest for sustenance, but he also took advantage of his skills to hunt for extra income.
He admits a sense of guilt for hunting in this way, that’s why when he had the opportunity to change his livelihood to supporting tourism activities that focused on conservation, he felt relieved that he no longer had hunted. He hopes that others in his village see the benefits and long-term sustainability of protecting the wildlife.
As I was being guided into the depths of the jungle with Seng Bo Me, it was evident that he was someone who cared for and respected everything about the jungle and, as a guide, he was able to see the direct link between tourism as a way to help conserve the protected area.
My favourite moments with Seng Bo Me was when he would whistle and call to birds. He would stop walking, then look up and start a bird-like whistle. We would be silent and then suddenly the bird would call back as if they were mates. He wouldn’t only look up at the sky for signs of birds, but he would look down for animals tracks and point at or pick up plants and identify their name and how they could be used for food and medicine.
Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area is the largest protected area in Lao PDR, spanning across three provinces: Houaphan, Luang Prabang and Xiengkhouang. The headquarters are in Muang Hiam town, in Houaphan province.
The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) supports the management of this protected area and provides technical assistance for conservation. The dedicated and passionate staff are responsible for monitoring wildlife and ensuring illegal activities, such as poaching and wildlife trade, are stopped.
I have a special place in my heart for large and open spaces, as well as feeling a sense of wild around me. They make me feel alive and spark a childlike sense of wonder for the world.
Ecotourism in Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area is truly an example of how tourism, hand-in-hand with conservation efforts, could provide new opportunities for locals to earn a living. Not only guides but also cooks, porters, homestay families and people who make handicrafts could participate in the new chain of opportunities.