In the wild


Laos is one of the few places on the planet where much of the forests, covering around 80% of the country, has remained unexplored and wildlife has thrived – including some animals written off as extinct.

It is a land of dense green hills, tropical monsoon climate, sparkling rivers from high peaks and fertile lowlands. And a very small population: the country is the size of England and there are fewer inhabitants than in London.

The result has been a low demand on the natural resources of the country and the flourishing of wildlife and flora in many places despite the horrors of war that dumped millions of tons of bombs and other ordinance on the land and chemical defoliants on the forests near Vietnam.

Today, the new religion of South East Asia – capitalism – is intent on savaging the land, either to exploit it for the enrichment of foreign firms or to benefit the desperately poor people of Laos with a higher living standard.

Some of the animal populations have faired better than others; some have been harder hit by the reduction of the forested areas in the past 100 years, by the hunters and by the poachers who steal rare animals for sale live in Vietnam or, as "medicinal" body parts or food, in China, Thailand and Vietnam.

The Land of a Million Elephants now has only a few hundred in the wild; and the Indo-Chinese tigers are under threat of extinction as their beautiful bodies are taken to feed the Chinese folk medicine trade.

But other animals, birds, reptiles and amphibians are surviving.

A review by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature covers more than 1,200 creatures, 20% of them pointed out as being significant to the region or the world.

Animals living widely in Laos include the Asian golden cat, the leopard cat, the lesser panda, various monkey species and the lesser mouse deer.

Endangered species include the Asiatic black bear, leopard and – just clinging to existence – the Irawaddy dolphin found in the Mekong around the border of Laos and Cambodia.

There are hundreds of bird species either living in the area or as temporary residents during migration seasons; and reptiles include six venomous snakes (Malayan viper, green viper, RussellŐs pit viper, banded krait, common cobra and king viper).

The Lao government has set up 20 National Biodiversity Conservation Areas, covering 12% of the country – a national treasure of rare animals and environments ranging from wetlands to forests and grasslands.

The NBCAs are divided into areas for production, for protection and for conservation and the government and international campaigning bodies are trying to bring them all under adequate control. But they suffer from poaching, slash-and-burn agriculture and illegal logging.

One, the Nakai-Nam Theun in central Laos between Vientiane and Vietnam, is seen as the world's most important biodiversity conservation area.

It is among South East Asia's richest areas for wildlife and it is known for the recent discovery of three previously unknown mammals – the giant-antlered muntjak, the saola deer and the black muntjak – as well as the rediscovery of the warty pig, once thought to be extinct.

It also shelters many other animals and birds, including endangered species like the Indo-Chinese tiger, the Asiatic elephant (most of the country's estimated total of between 300 and 500), the clouded leopard and the Asiatic black bear.

Front Page


Although there are only a few hundred Asiatic elephants in the wild in Laos, there are probably two or three times as many used as working animals – perhaps as many as 1200 used for logging and agriculture