Where are the Rangers?
When we entered Laos, we set out on our quest to find Lao rangers in order to make their stories heard. We imagined them speaking about days of patrolling through dense forests, seeking out wildlife traps and the poachers that set them up, encountering tigers, elephants and gibbons and stopping men with chainsaws cutting down the forest giants. This quest took us to two major National Protected Areas (NPA), where the forests are extensive and not easily accessible. It turned out, the forests where as inaccessible, as the rangers themselves...
Rangers in Laos
Not many people become a ranger in Laos. In total, there could be 500 rangers, but this number greatly depends on the available funding. Ranger teams are usually installed by NGO's (e.g. the WCS or WWF) or with the help of private initiatives, such as the Gibbon Experience Treck. Their main objective is to prevent poaching, collecting illegal trapping devices such as snares and nets and monitor wildlife.
A typical patrol team consists of five to six people. Two men are villagers, often previous hunters, two men are from the district and two are either soldiers or police officers. The later are the only ones allowed to carry firearms. Theoretically all the men are employed by the government, however they only earn 100'000 kip per month (roughly 12 Euro), a sum that Sera and I would spend on food alone in one day. Hence, NGO's provide for the rest of the salary, approx. 150'000 kip per patrol day. The problem, also NGO's depend on external funding and grant money and therefore can employ rangers only on one year contracts. Funding fluctuates and so does the number of patrolling rangers. In the Bolikhamxay province, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) was still able to employ 150 rangers in 2015. This year, 2017, their funding has dropped and the ranger equip consists of a meager 38 men for an area of 3'700 km2 .
Besides the salary, NGO's such as the WCS ensure that all the rangers have sufficient training and good equipment to go into the field. On each patrol the teams use GPS devices to track their route and note down everything they encounter, being poacher or wildlife. Every month, the teams report back to the WCS and their work is recorded and evaluated. This system ensures that patrols are carried out effectively and allow feedback for improvement.
One of the biggest challenges of working with Lao rangers is however not their lack of education and knowledge, its the Lao character of avoiding any direct conflict. A trait which is quite hindering in a job which requires one to directly confront law offenders. "At first, the rangers would only give out verbal, sometimes written warnings. It took a lot of work and training to give the rangers more self confidence to enforce the law and give out fines, but over the last years we have seen large improvements" said Ben Swanepoel from the WCS. Setting up clear borders of the protected area and closely working with the villagers to make them understand the rules and regulations of these protected areas has been a further success factor. This inclusion is crucial and benefits the rangers, as many poachers are villagers and might even be relatives or close friends of the rangers.
Who are the Poachers?
Villagers have exhaustive knowledge about the animals and plants that surround them and which ones are easy to hunt and safe to eat. For centuries they have lived in the forests where they hunted and collected their food, more or less sustainably. Nowadays, they have another incentive to hunt wildlife and collect timber and non-timber forest products, a monetary incentive. Wildlife and forest products are in great demand, either for traditional Asian medicine, culinary specialties or as trophies and signs of wealth. Especially Vietnam and China are the biggest buyers of these products and the cross-border trafficking is immense. For villagers this demand created a new source of income and skilled hunters are highly recognized among their community. It has also turned village hunters caring for their families into poachers, tending to a multi-million dollar illegal trade of wildlife and forest resources.
This puts conservationists and rangers into a difficult position. "Conservationists and rangers are considered to endanger the villagers food security and income by enforcing wildlife- and forest protection laws" tells us Sivilay Duangdala (WCS). It is a short sighted mind-set, as the rigorous hunting of wildlife and the logging and overharvesting of timber and non-forest timber products will impede the villagers livelihoods in the long term. Community outreach programs, where villagers are engaged in conservation and are taught alternatives to hunting and gathering exist, but it is timely and resource intensive. At the Nam Et-Phou Louey NPA, intensive community outreach and education in 14 villages is starting to show very positive results. However, around 1000 villages are located in and around the NPA, an enormous task!
Conservation is Development Aid
In theory, 80% of the Lao people should be concerned about conserving the wildlife and flora of Lao, as their livelihoods largely depend on the direct utilization of natural resources. But missing or insufficient education and knowledge about their own impact on the forests they live in, inhibit an environmental consciousness from developing. Rangers and conservationists face the dilemma, that by prohibiting poaching, they take away the villagers source of food and income. In order to overcome this dilemma, conservation work is largely development aid and capacity building.
The Lao government has a meager annual budget of 50'000 US$ to spend on NPAs. Surely not enough to successfully manage all 25 NPAs in the country. Hence, all the extra funding comes from NGO's, Asian Development Bank, grants and donor governments. Ecotourism projects are often a way of generating further funding while engaging the local communities as well. The WCS has set up a boat safari and trekking tours in the Nam Et-Phou Louy NPA and managed to engage the communities. As a result, the communities have a new source of income. They now also have an incentive to protect wildlife, as for each animal seen on a tour, the communities receive a small monetary bonus.
The empty forest syndrome - a tragedy of the commons?
While cycling through Laos, we often saw vast forests with few human settlements and infrastructure. But in these forests a deafening silence surrounded us, especially along the main road, route 13, which runs from north to south and connects Laos' main cities with China and Thailand. This phenomenon, the absence of wildlife in a seemingly intact forest ecosystem, is called "the empty forest syndrome" and was first described as such in 1992 by Kent H. Redford. The vigorous all year hunting of species and the use of unsustainable trapping devices such snares and nets exasperates the problem.
At the same time, the forest species are considered an open access resource, that is a resource which can be utilized freely by everyone. Laws theoretically regulate the hunting of wildlife, but weak enforcement and a missing consciousness of the legitimacy of these laws, has turned wildlife hunting into an unregulated use of resources. Over-harvesting and resource depletion is the result, a development described by Garrett Harding in 1968 as "the tragedy of the commons". Solutions for over coming this tragedy are both government regulation and private ownership. But the Lao government lacks funds and capacity (and maybe determination?) to effectively protect its natural heritage. Private ownership would only make sense, if the owner is responsible, trustworthy and has idealistic goals to protect the environment. Probably hard to find people like this on a larger scale. However, in some cases social networks with functioning voluntary cooperation have also shown to effectively manage resources. The communities would need to undergo a paradigm shift, where not the caught and dead animals are valuable, but those ones alive and free. Could this be the answer for saving Laos' wildlife?
What will the future hold?
Laos is a poor country, the education system is rudimentary and effective conservation only exists due to the work and money of NGOs and donor countries. It is surrounded by heavily populated and much more developed countries, all with their own economic interests in the countries natural resources. It will be a great challenge for Laos to develop, improve peoples livelihood and simultaneously protect its fauna, flora and unique ecosystems. Laos will change significantly over the next 20 years, as development is spreading across the country. We hope this development will eventually allow Laotians to turn away from hunting and gathering and towards becoming a society where wildlife has a greater value alive in the forests, than imprisoned in cages, as an evening meal or as a trade object.
Special thanks to Ben Swanepoel (National protected areas management advisor, WCS), Matthew Porter Hunt (Chief Executive, Free the Bears), Sivilay Duangdala (Program Manager of NEPL-NPA Landscape, WCS), Touy Phiamoua (Ecotourism in NEPL-NPA, WCS)
Redford, Kent (June 1992). "The Empty Forest" (PDF). BioScience. 42 (6): 412–422.
Hardin, G (1968). "The Tragedy of the Commons". Science. 162 (3859): 1243–1248.