Sandwiched between two wannabe titans — Vietnam and Thailand — landlocked, mountainous Lao People’s Democratic Republic is the poorest country in Southeast Asia. Louangphabang, an ancient Lao royal town of great historical, architectural, cultural, and religious significance, lies in the north-central part of Laos on the banks of the mighty, muddy Mekong and its tributary the Nam Khan river.
With a population of 58,641 and designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, Louangphabang has often been described as a gentle backwater, an oasis of peace and tranquility, a real-life 'Shangri-la' lost in time and space. I have even heard tourists describe it as 'the most magical place in the most mysterious country on earth.'
Arriving late at night I am anxious to explore this sleepy settlement, and so I head for the night market. I have visions of local traders selling local goods to local residents. I hope to see home-grown fruits and vegetables vying for space with freshly caught fish and homemade baskets and brooms and well-crafted, locally produced, simple cloth. I was totally unprepared.
The night market — a market mentioned in every guidebook, frequently described as 'atmospheric,' 'romantic,' and 'traditional', and recommended by every guest house proprietor and tourist in Louangphabang — is a massive outdoor commercial venture of savvy traders selling lots of hippy-style cloth and clothing and bags and jewellery and stationery — some of it imported from neighbouring countries — to young, foreign backpackers and not-so-young foreign tourists at prices totally incomprehensible to many of the local population.
This market has nothing for the local population. It is similar to every tacky street market found in some section of any Western city where tourists abound. I could be anywhere in the world. Camden market in London, Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, Plaza Mayor in Palma. In all such cities street markets sell similar goods to the same buyers. Except, of course, this market, in the middle of Southeast Asia, also sells wild ungulate horns and heads and wild boar tusks and elephant teeth and tortoise shell bracelets and pictures of Buddha painted on the backs of possibly endangered turtles, and pangolin and bear paws and cobra and python skins and peacock feathers — a treasure trove of endangered species body parts.
When I ask a young Australian backpacking vegetarian who is bargaining for an ungulate, if it is legal to take the horns out of Laos and into Australia he says, 'Of course, otherwise they wouldn’t be for sale. They’re really cool. Everyone buys them and brings them home.'
And then I see a well-to-do fifty-something-year-old purchasing a bear paw. And again I ask my question. And again I am told, 'Everything’s legal here. I could buy a monkey or an elephant if I wanted to.' When I explain to this tourist that it is sometimes said that Laos was once known as the 'Land of a Million Elephants' and that their numbers are dwindling, he bets me he could buy and export a herd of elephants today for a lot less than one million Australian dollars. Sadly, I’m sure he is right.
The tourists have no idea that purchasing wild animal products and transporting them across borders is illegal. I am amazed that there are no signs at the airport or in the hotels or guest houses or restaurants telling the public that this is illegal. Lao public awareness campaigns are in evidence all over town. Everywhere I look I see posters for health and literacy and cultural sensitivity. Wildlife awareness? I spotted only one 'Threatened Wildlife in Lao PDR' poster. It was ripped and torn and tattered and hidden away in the corner of a noodle shop, half covered over by a calendar.
An all day boat ride through shallow waters, small rapids and heavy storms up the Nam Ou river past vertical limestone cliffs, sandy beaches, local fishermen, splashing, smiling children, foraging domestic water buffaloes, hand-made hydroelectric systems, eroded hillsides, burning forests and small villages takes me to the geographically isolated village of Muong Ngoi.
Legacy of war
Lying directly on the old Ho Chi Minh trail, Muong Ngoi was subjected to constant bombing during the Vietnam War. Today there are relics of this war everywhere. Posters warn of live bombs while land mine clearance teams wander through fields searching out unexploded ordnance (UXOs) - serious obstacles to sustainable economic and agricultural development. Amputees sit in the shade, amongst fence posts and flowerpots and house stilts and joists made from old pieces of war machinery, watching able-bodied tourists wander through the village. To this day, unknown numbers of UXOs lie buried in nearby agricultural fields and forests, where they continue to claim innocent victims.
Sitting on a grassy knoll, away from any UXOs, watching a group of local men drinking homemade rice whisky from a communal pot through long bamboo straws I am joined by two Dutch travellers and a school teacher from California who explains to me that she is on a much-needed sabbatical and is ‘thrilled to be able to get in touch with the real Laos here in the middle of nowhere’. ‘Tonight’, she continues ‘we are going to eat at our guides house because he wants to show us what an endangered antelope tastes like’.
When I ask why they would eat an endangered animal, the school teacher tells me that she wants ‘an adventure and I want to see what it tastes like... I mean it’s pretty cool to be able to eat something rare that most people have never seen. And, it’s cheap. We only had to give him 10 dollars for all of us. And, we are helping him. He is benefiting financially. It seems to me that we are doing the right thing.’
The Californian is right in only one respect. Ten dollars is cheap for their meal for them. But, ten dollars is a lot of money in a country where the average income is less than 450$ per year. And, potentially that’s also a real incentive for people to go out and hunt endangered and exotic meals for travellers looking for the ‘one-off’ thrill. And so that night one Californian schoolteacher and two Dutch travellers sat down to a meal of local rice whisky, sticky rice, fried morning glory leaves and a stew made from endangered ungulate. They had their gastronomic adventure and their Lao host made a pot load of money.
Poverty and demand
Their host really had very little choice. Laos is an extremely poor country with a growing population. Unfortunately, this means that there is continual pressure to make money any way one can. So, if that means killing endangered wildlife to satisfy western appetites, then that is what happens.
No matter where I went in Laos I saw a once isolated country with a growing tourist trail. The tourists want to experience what they feel is the ‘real Laos’. They want nature, the unusual, the unexpected and rare experience and the wildlife. Unfortunately, it also appears that some of them want to abuse the nature, turn the unexpected and rare experience into a commodity and collect and/or eat the wildlife.
The tourism sub-sector is expanding rapidly, and is seen as an important source of future growth and foreign exchange earnings. In 2007, Laos received over 1.5 million tourists and by 2015 it is estimated that there will be 2.2 million and 3 million in 2020. How many of these tourists are buying wildlife products? How many are eating endangered animals? No one knows.
As I watch the tourists piling into and out of cafes and hotels, buying endangered species to take home and put on their bookshelves and listen to them talk enthusiastically about eating wildlife, I fear that it is not going to be possible for them to appreciate their surroundings for its beauty without exploiting the place and the people and without subtracting from its essence unless major changes are made.
The economic benefits of tourism for local communities can be positive, but there needs to be a balance because the demands of tourism can also contribute to the destruction of the natural and cultural environment upon which it depends. If there is over-exploitation and the wildlife is harmed then both the local community and the tourist industry will eventually collapse. as will the environment.
As a Party to the Convention on Biological Diversity, and as outlined in their National Biodiversity Conservation Strategy, Laos is committed to conserving biodiversity and protecting wildlife. But, will this commitment be ruined by a tidal wave of ignorant tourists?
I had incorrectly assumed that an increase in tourism would provide positive financial reinforcement for residents to conserve many of the species. I had also incorrectly assumed that tourists would simply want to view wildlife and experience nature from a distance. Unfortunately what I am seeing is that tourists want to buy wildlife items and eat wild animals. In reality tourism is threatening wildlife.
Laos is clearly hemorrhaging wildlife, and possibly out of ignorance, possibly out of greed, tourists are taking part in this carnage.
Today Laos is loosing its wild animals and plants at an alarming rate according to IUCN, WCS and WWF. Forest cover is declining and forest quality is deteriorating. According to UNDP, some of the main factors contributing to the destruction of biodiversity are poor forest management, illegal logging, unsustainable hunting and fishing practices and wildlife trade. This over-exploitation of natural resources is depriving the local population of vital resources and thereby possibly increasing poverty.
Tourists buying wildlife products and eating wild animals (endangered or not) is nowhere as bad as all the other problems Laos faces - yet. But, and this is a big but, if the onslaught of tourism continues and the tourists are not properly informed as to the repercussions of their selfish acts then tourism will have extremely detrimental effects. The tourists must be adequately educated or more mistakes will be made and it will become very difficult to realign local thinking and business practice towards genuine ecotourism principles and environmentally friendly behaviours.
Out of time?
Unfortunately, it might be almost too late for the inhabitants of Muong Ngoi. According to a 2008 UNESCO document large numbers of tourists arrived in Muang Ngoi before local people were prepared to deal with the social and environmental impacts that tourism can cause leading to an increasing number of conflicts between local business owners, an increase in petty theft and drug abuse among youth, too many visitors and environmental problems such as water pollution and excess trash.
Before leaving Laos, I take one more walk through the market in Louangphabang. I see a German family putting some horns in their knapsacks, a Japanese couple buying a bear paw, an old elephant tooth being slipped into an Australian’s handbag. I watch some young American tourists bartering for python skins and I know that they will get a ‘good deal’ and that the seller will have more python skins to sell and more python purchasers tomorrow and the day after and the day after that.
And so – for now at least - the circle of wildlife trading continues and the tourists walk away with smiles on their faces and trinkets in their pockets and the market traders, also with smiles on their faces, put the profits in their pockets and everyone seems happy. Except of course, soon, very soon, the supply will collapse, the smiles will disappear and the wildlife will vanish forever.
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