Where Has All the Wildlife Gone?

Not too long ago, I’ve been told, Laos was a place of thick, undisturbed tropical forests and lush riverbanks brimmed with wildlife. Originally nicknamed “The Land of One Thousand Elephants,” Laos was once a rich habitat for elephants, gibbons, tigers, bears, crocodiles, and fish. But as I look around the countryside of Luang Prabang, all I see are burnt hillsides, dry rice fields, and empty shores.

It was unfortunate to discover that much of Laos’ forest resources and biodiversity are disappearing at alarming rate due to over-exploitation and illegal practices. More than half of Laos’ tropical forest have been demolished by illegal logging, and most of their iconic animals, like the tree-hopping gibbon and grazing Asian elephant, have been poached to near extinction. With over two-thirds of the native population living in rural villages, the amount of land-clearing, hunting, and fishing is breaching the limits of sustainability.

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I would never have noticed the extent of this human impact had Jeremy and I decided not to go on a two-day trek through the rural villages of Luang Prabang province. But our mutual interest in hiking, sustainable development and ecotourism naturally attracted us to the Fair-Trek Project.

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The Fair-Trek project is supported by the Luang Prabang-based company, Tiger Trail, that first began as an outdoor adventure tour operator. For the past several years, however, Tiger Trail has implemented a new model of ecotourism in which rural villages benefit from the tourism. They now offer tourists the opportunity to hike through rural villages and buy local crafts, experience home stays, or volunteer to build bamboo huts, clay schools and plant crops with villagers. The money you pay for the trek (a whopping $40/day) goes a long way to employ and train local guides, support volunteer projects and small village businesses, as well as provide for community-managed village funds. What we got in return was an invaluable glimpse at the joys and challenges of village life.

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From where the road ended near Elephant Village (another sad reminder that the only way to see elephants in this area now is in captivity), we took a small long tail down the river to our trailhead.

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Jeremy and I were joined by a very nice girl named Charlotte, traveling from Germany, and our local guide – with an unforgettable short stature whose name escapes me. Walking first through fields of flowering tobacco plants, we followed the local’s route. For five hours we hiked around rice paddies, up steep rocky hills, across freshly cleared forests, and down dry riverbeds.

Stopping for lunch at one village, I took note of the yellowish-brown pond and the four young girls splashing in the shallows, not far from the bathing cows and pigs. Our guide explained that the pond was the only water source for this village during the dry season. Animals and humans all bathing and drinking from the same stagnant pool. Made my belly hurt just thinking about it.

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The villages we visited varied in size. One consisted of merely four families. Another was comprised of nearly seventy. All were quiet and clean – impressive considering the dirt floors and roaming livestock. The people seemed used to the presence of foreigners, but were generally shy and reserved. Only the children were curious enough to approach us or peek through the walls of our homestay to say hello. Each village in Laos is its own separate tribe. They have their own name for their people and their own dialect. Many of them are illiterate and few can speak the national language, Lao. Before approaching a need village, our guide would teach us how to say “hello”, “thank you” and “goodbye” in the local dialect. Hearing us speak their native tongue always made the people smile. (Tip: Big Brother Mouse is a non-profit/bookshop in Luang Prabang, selling bilingual children books. A great gift for village schools! Wish I had known about it before our trek.)

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Nearing the end of our first day, our guide welcomed us to the village of Huayfai. “Ah, Wifi!” We said. “What’s the password?”

“No, no. No wifi. No electricity here.” He replied, looking a bit concerned from clearly misunderstanding our joke.

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Huayfai was a beautiful village, though nearly deserted when we arrived as most people – men, women and children – wouldn’t return from the fields until after 6 o’clock. So we wandered freely for a couple of hours, making faces with children, taking photos, chasing ducklings, and watching the teenagers set up a game of kick volleyball. By 7 o’clock we were fed and it was dark. Our host family and guide said goodnight. Shortly after, our candle burnt out, and so did we.

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The next morning, our hike was a short two hour return to the river. Already the villagers were hours into their work day as we passed through their hillside farms. It was not the beautiful, jungle experience I had expected. The sky was grey and the landscape singed. A sprinkling of ash fell from the sky all the way to the river.

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The end of our trek brought us back to the Elephant Village and Tad Sae waterfall (too bad the falls were dry at this time). There, we had the option to ride the elephants or go zip-lining with the gibbons. But seeing the elephants in chains and knowing that the gibbons had vanished, we were not inclined to do either. So our trek concluded with lunch and a boat ride back to the other side of the river.

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Though it was great to get some exercise and witness village life firsthand, I couldn’t help but wonder where all the wildlife was! Forty hours in the “countryside” and we saw nothing. No wildlife. None. It was slightly depressing. I wonder and worry how these villages will continue to attract tourists for trekking without the prospect of seeing wildlife. Why will people want to kayak down the river if there’s nothing in it except fishing lines? As much as I am in love with Laos and their cities, getting out into the rural areas opened my eyes to some of their larger issues around sustainability, health, and conservation. There is definitely much work here to be done.

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