Empowering villagers to protect wildlife

HUAPHAN PROVINCE, Laos (MindaNews/02 July) — Families from 14 villages in the Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area (NEPL-NPA) have now signed a contract to participate in an ecotourism programme in northern Laos.

According to Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Lao PDR programme manager, Mr Paul Eshoo, the agreement was how villagers in Huameuang district of Huaphan province were encouraged to take part in conservation and ecotourism benefit-sharing.

“It’s not enough to only inform and educate the village leaders. We had to talk with each family to convince them to sign an agreement to show they understood and accepted the responsibility,” Mr. Eshoo told MindaNews.

The WCS has been involved in NEPL-NPA management since 2002 after the organization began its support for wildlife conservation in Laos in 1998, according to WCS Lao programme director Troy Hansel.

The World Bank began funding the WCS and NEPL-NPA since March this year. It planned to provide more funds for the Lao PDR in the next five years to step up the conservation program.

Hansel said the NEPL-NPA was an important location in northeast Laos as it was home to many species, including 21 types of carnivore, like the leopard.

“It’s very important for the ecosystem to remain intact,” he said.

The NPA covers a total area of 4,200 sq km over the provinces of Huaphan, Luang Prabang and Xieng Khuang, with 3,000 sq km totally protected.

The remaining 1,200 sq km may be used for sustainable agriculture, and includes 129 villages with nearly 55,000 residents.

Ecotourism development in the Nam Nern River area was allowed by the NEPL-NPA office, district administration and Son Khua village residents in 2009.

Mr. Eshoo said his organization held stakeholder meetings to discuss pertinent issues in nine target villages originally, and expanded to 14 villages in 2012.

Issues brought up with villagers included who the tourists would be and why they were interested in visiting the NEPL-NPA, the potential advantages and disadvantages of tourism, and the responsibilities of villages in hosting visitors and helping to protect tourist attractions.

“We held the meetings at night or in the early morning to encourage all villagers to attend,” he said. “The meetings were interactive with games, acting, pictures and question-and-answer sessions for the villagers. At the end of each meeting, we asked villagers to express how they feel about tourism and if they want to participate.”

Benefit sharing

Each village also attended sessions on benefit-sharing agreements from the Nam Nern programme.
Under the agreement, each village receives 6,250 kip for every tourist who visits, plus 150,000 kip per tiger sighting, 2,500 kip per sighting of a tiger track, Sambar deer, otter or wild feline species, and 1,250 kip per sighting of muntjac, civet, slow loris, porcupine or monitor lizard.

The agreement also stipulates if anyone from a village is caught violating the laws of the NPEL-NPA, such as selling or hunting wildlife or entering the core zone, then the amount for the village will be reduced by 25 or 50 percent for the first and second offense respectively.

“If a person from any stakeholder village is responsible for a national wildlife case (such as tiger hunting), the village will lose 100 percent of the village development fund benefits for one year,” the agreement says.

It adds that if a resident of the village where the case originates provides information to help find the perpetrator, the village will not lose its benefits.

“We asked people if they had any questions or problems with the agreement. Once they verbally agreed, we asked a member of each family to sign the contract,” Mr. Eshoo said.

He said the organization visits each of the 14 villages to have a meeting with every family to summarize the year’s tourist statistics, the benefits generated for the village development fund, and the amount of wildlife that tourists saw.

Since 2009, the Nam Nern Night Safari has taken 344 tourists on 128 tours, earning a total income of 276,764,000 kip.

Tours averaged about three wildlife sightings per trip.

The NEPL-NPA reported that in four years there was zero sighting of tigers but there were 11 sets of tiger tracks seen.

Tourists saw 236 Sambar deer, 179 civets, 54 muntjacs, 51 monitor lizards, 31 slow loris, 21 otters and 15 porcupines.

“We discuss any problems related to conservation, and the villagers vote for one activity to use their money on,” Mr. Eshoo said.

Tiger’s price

Seeing a tiger is an extremely rare occurrence, with none spotted since the tours began in 2009.

“The bonus for seeing a tiger is significantly more than other animals due to its endangered status and the high value of tigers on the black market,” the night safari itinerary states.

“If tigers are to be saved, their high value in tourism must be demonstrated to local people.”

Each tourist chooses a development programme to allocate funds from their entrance tickets, with options available in conservation outreach, enforcement, or monitoring, land-use planning and ecotourism development.

Employees in tourism

Some Son Khua villagers, mostly those on a low income, are employed in the Nam Nern ecotourism programme.

Mr. Eshoo said the organization held a special meeting with all of the families to discuss employment as guides, cooks, boat drivers, handicraft suppliers and camp managers.

“We asked all interested people to attend an interview. We selected the families based on several criteria, including their knowledge and abilities to do the job, poverty – as poor families got preference to work – and availability,” he said.

To make clear their responsibilities, wages and commitment to refrain from illegal activities, each employee has signed a contract.

Villagers have been trained as guides, boatmen, cooks and camp managers, and attend regular meetings to discuss issues, ways to improve services, and share feedback from tourists, Mr. Eshoo said.

“We also remove any villagers who break the contract such as by committing illegal hunting,” he said
A former hunter, 24-year-old Mr. Pan Homphan became a boatman for the ecotour.

He told MindaNews his income from the programme helped a little with his livelihood.

He said he would never dare hunt or fish within the protected areas, as he had seen some of his colleagues suspended from work for a year for violations.

Coming off the night safari, MindaNews received intricately designed shawls that were woven by the women of Son Khua village.

The villagers’ waves and smiles as the team left offered proof of the promise to protect tigers and other forms of wildlife for future ecotours. (Lorie Ann Cascaro/MindaNews)

(Lorie Ann Cascaro of MindaNews is one of the fellows of the FK Norway (Fredskorpset) exchange programme in partnership with the Vietnam Forum of Environmental Journalists. She’s currently in Laos and hosted by the Vientiane Times.)