(Note: This was published in Vientiane Times last Saturday, June 29, 2013.)
HUAPHAN PROVINCE, Laos (MindaNews / 30 June) – Maneuvering a long-tail boat with a bamboo stick, a Khmu boatman, Mr Khounthone, pointed his headlight left and right, up and down to spot wildlife along the Nam Nern River. He was tracing the bushes and trees like a painter, coloring silhouettes on a gray canvas made by the pale moonlight.
Everyone in the boat was silent, while gripping his or her flashlight and holding its switch like the trigger of a gun, ready to shoot. The only sounds came from birds and cicadas, and the cascading water as it crashed into rocks and mangroves.
A tour boatman, Mr Khounthone maneuvers a traditional long-tail boat with a thin bamboo stick along the Nam Nern River. The boat is loaded with portable chairs, cooking utensils and life vests for the night camp and safari.
Suddenly, Mr Khounthone rocked the boat and whispered, “Linglom!” as he spotted a slow loris on a tree branch. All three passengers switched on their flashlights and shone their beam in the headlight’s direction to see the wild animal.
The 35-year-old boatman admitted that he used to hunt wildlife and fish in the river for food many years ago – the reason for his expertise in boating and tracking animals at night.
“I was a hunter in the past but not in prohibited areas. We only hunted animals in the areas allowed, such as in Viengthong district,” he told Vientiane Times.
Fishing and hunting wildlife have been illegal within the Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area (NEPL-NPA) since its establishment in 1993, and is being supported by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).
The WCS has been funded by the World Bank since March this year in a bid to sustain the NEPL-NPA, which has a total area of 4,200 square kilometers covering the provinces of Huaphan, Luang Prabang and Xieng Khuang.
Mr Khamkeo Syxaiyakhamthor, of the WCS and NEPL-NPA project assistant, said that of the total land area, 3,000 square kilometers are totally protected areas, where hunting and fishing around the Nam Nern River and merely entering the core zone without authorization such as through an eco-tour are prohibited by law.
The remaining 1,200 square kilometers may be used for sustainable agriculture, and this is where 129 villages with 54,315 inhabitants are to be found.
Mr Khounthone joined the NEPL-NPA eco-tour project at the beginning of the program, four years ago, in Huameuang district, along with other villagers from Ban Son Koua. He belongs to the boat group, one of several groups that specialize in related services such as tour guides, cooking, camping and handicrafts.
Most of the tour fees go directly to the village development fund, which is shared equally by the 14 villages located within the area covered by the Nam Nern River eco-tour project, Mr Khamkeo said.
Mr Khounthone said he realized they could earn money without actually catching wildlife, instead using their hunting skills to promote tourism.
Through the eco-tours, he earns 40,000 kip (P228) per day, aside from the 80,000 kip (P456) he gets for the use of his boat, excluding fuel costs.
“It’s not much money but at least we have some extra income. It somehow helps us to provide for our daily needs. If we didn’t do this, we would just stay at home or on our farm,” he said.
The main source of income for Mr Khounthone and all the other members of the tour service groups is their sweet corn crop.
The village can only plant the crop once a year because the soil cannot hold much water and its quality degrades every two years, explained local tour guide Mr Khenthong Keolavong when giving an orientation before the start of the eco-tour.
He said each family in the village earns an average of 15 million (P85,700) to 16 million kip (P91,500) per year from the sweet corn they grow.
“We can only grow sweet corn because of the mountainous terrain,” he said, standing near the village’s spirit house against a backdrop of green hills planted with sweet corn.
Mr Khenthong also joined the boat tour to spot for wildlife along the Nam Nern River. Each boat has two crew members, with one at either end. The one at the back operates the engine.
According to Mr Khounthone, there were 10 boats at the beginning of the project, but now there are only five boats available for tours.
Three of the boatmen were fired after they were caught fishing in the area connecting to the totally protected zone more than once, he said. On their first offence, the boatmen were warned and suspended from service for a year.
“It was not only the boatmen who were penalized for their violations, but also every member of the villages because money was deducted from the village fund,” Mr Khounthone said.
“This year, someone was caught fishing in the totally protected area so now our village fund is almost depleted,” he said with a wry smirk.
[Lorie Ann Cascaro of MindaNews is one of the fellows of the FK Norway (Fredskorpset) exchange program in partnership with the Vietnam Forum of Environmental Journalists. She's currently in Laos and hosted by the Vientiane Times.]