“We differ from other nature tours in Laos, because we are one of the very few opportunities to observe wildlife in their habitat,” said Janina Bikova, as she opened her presentation on ecotourism activities at the Nam Et-Phou Louey (NEPL) National Protected Area.
“And these tours are for everyone. We’ve had a family with a four-year-old, and seniors in their 70s,” continued the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Ecotourism Coordinator for NEPL.
“Just last week, we welcomed a physically impaired person to the Nam Nern Night Safari, who spotted a very rare Asian golden cat. So with us, anything is possible.”
Located in the far north, NEPL is Laos’ largest National Protected Area (NPA), and covers just under 600,000 hectares across three provinces. Its ecotours are the only legal way to enter.
The WCS began supporting conservation efforts in NEPL in 2003, before assisting in developing ecotourism products in 2009, in which the communities play a major role.
Enter the Nam Nern Night Safari, which places visitors in long-tail boats on a jungle river for a night-time drift to search for endangered wildlife. Common sightings include Sambar deer, otters, barking deer, slow loris, porcupine, owls and various species of civets.
Ms Bikova noted that in 2010, the average number of wildlife sightings per Night Safari tour stood at four, but the number quickly rose.
By 2013, sightings-per-tour had jumped to six. Also that year, the Night Safari received the “Best Responsible Wildlife Experience” title at the prestigious WTM World Responsible Tourism Awards, due in part for employing around 40 families from 14 villages.
The following year, visitor numbers almost doubled from 85 to 160, as the accolades kept coming, this time from the People’s Choice at the Responsible Tourism Awards.
Ms Bikova took up her post at NEPL in 2015 at a pivotal time. “Sightings climbed to eight animals per tour in 2016,” she said, but added the scientific reason for this leap remains uncertain.
“It could be that the animals are used to people, or the rangers are doing a great job in combatting poachers. Maybe animals are migrating here or reproducing more. We are conducting research to find out.”
Meanwhile, 2017 saw sightings reach nine per tour.
With visitor numbers now climbing to over 300 in 2016, NEPL began offering Wildlife Conservation Trekking Tours, with its base village some 90 minutes away from the Night Safari in a different part of the NPA.
The treks take wildlife conservation tourism to a level above spotting animals at the Night Safari; visitors participate in tracking rare wildlife.
“Trekking offers an opportunity to enter one of Laos’ most important wildlife habitats…and to track rare species such as wild cats, bears and the wild dog (dhole) using camera traps set up along the trail and maintained by tourists,” Ms Bikova explained.
No other activity in Laos provides tourists the chance to live out a childhood dream of being a biologist tracking down animals in the wild – just like the ones on TV – but this is very real.
Under a local guide’s supervision, tourist collect data from the camera traps, inspect scratch marks, and even take faecal samples to incorporate into the NEPL’s wildlife-monitoring program.
“Often times the animals we’re tracking are really close and you don’t know it,” Ms Bikova said. “They could be a 10-minute walk away.”
She said trekkers often see monkeys and hear gibbons as they check the camera traps and register the findings. These are dated and stamped, and recorded along with the GPS coordinates.
Amateur biologists will find four trekking options from moderate to challenging and from two to five days.
The 2-day, moderate to difficult “Nest” treks head to the heart of the NPA for a night in a Nest…a spherical basket hanging from a tree. A nearby observation tower overlooks a salt lick that attracts Sambar deer. The 3-day “Waterfall & Nests” trek adds an overnight in a jungle hut with a waterfall near the camp.
The more challenging 4-5-night “Cloud Forest Climbs” reach the summit of Phou Louey, known as Forever Mountain for rising as the nation’s third highest peak with “cloud forests” at 2,257 metres. These treks through evergreen forests overnight in a Khmu homestay, jungle huts and a Nest inside the NPA.
As for wildlife on the treks, “More than 30 wildlife species have been recorded along the trails since 2016, including four wild cat species, two bear species, the critically endangered northern White-Cheeked gibbons, and many more,” Ms Bikova said.
“NEPL is also the last tiger habitat in Lao PDR. The most recent camera trap image was taken in 2014, and the last footprint was seen in 2016.”
Ms Bikova noted that 26 villages with more than 2,000 households now benefit from NEPL ecotourism activities, and 150 family members are directly employed on the tours.
During the first six months of 2018, 265 wildlife buffs signed up for an NEPL tour, with the final annual tally eyeing 500. Numbers look to climb higher as word gets out on Laos’ one-of-a-king wildlife tour.
However, Ms Bikova has over-tourism covered. NEPL limits the number of Night Safari tours and Wildlife Conservation Treks. Booking is first come, first served, though the NPA has yet to approach saturation levels.
Currently, most tourists book directly with NEPL, though a few top Lao operators include the wildlife tours in their itineraries such as Green Discovery, EXO Travel, Khiri Travel, Nakarath, and Tiger Trails.
Though hidden in remote Houaphanh Province, the NEPL headquarters is relatively easy to access. A paved circuit has organically popped up in north-eastern Laos, and NEPL is a solid dot on the route.
Top destinations directly on the circuit include Luang Prabang, Phonsavanh with the Plain of Jars, and Sam Neua with Viengxay Cave City, all of which are accessible by air and offer transport to NEPL.
Driving time to the Night Safari from Phonsavanh and Sam Neua is about 3.5 hours. The drive from Luang Prabang stops overnight night at Nong Khiaw after four hours, and then it’s a five-hour ride to Muang Hiam and the NEPL Headquarters.
Many groups are dedicated to wildlife conservation efforts in Laos, and are meeting with success. However, they need to create enclosed habitats for visitors to observe the saved animals they protect and save.
Not NEPL. Their rangers are the protectors and the habitat has no fence. Someday, these enclosures may come down. Until then, nature tourists to Laos can spot and track wildlife in their own back yard only at NEPL.
Photographs credits: Wildlife Conservation Society, Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment Lao PDR.