You can see birds in Luang Prabang province now. Not many, but more than a few years ago. And that is a hopeful sign in a region where wildlife is being stripped bare for the cooking pot.

There are mammals, too, and a lot of the children – if not many of their parents – now look on wildlife as something to nurture rather than eat.

Killing animals and birds for food and other uses has been and still is a big conservation problem in Laos and the rest of south-east Asia.

Even endangered species end up in the cooking pot or sold to the Chinese medicine traders. In some places, like some of the northern hills of Thailand, the seemingly impossible has happened: the abundance of nature has vanished. There is no sound of birds or animals, no sight of anything that is not human or insect.

The comparatively few bigger animals – the Indo-Chinese tiger, the bears, the elephants – have retreated into the deep forests where they are under increasing pressure from those who want their environment or their bodies.

In Britain, where food supply problems necessitate a quick trip to Tescos, it is difficult to come to terms with such remorseless destruction of the natural world. But in Laos, on the ground, it all makes a terrible, inevitable sense.

People are desperately poor, most living on subsistence or slash and burn farming, and many existing on what they can find or kill in the jungle. Almost all outside the big towns, regard a frog or a bird as a welcome protein boost and a variation to rice and vegetables.

At the top end of this scale are the subsistence farmers: in Laos, their annual income is put at $320 a year – less than a dollar or a euro a day – but that is mostly the rice they grow and that, with the increasing and shifting population trapped in land constrained by the debris of war, is no longer enough.

Many villages have a rice deficit; malnourishment is widespread; and the bland economic indicator masks the reality of trying to live without money – aid workers in northern Laos put the average cash income at $40 a year to buy all the needs from cooking oil and salt to clothes, medicines and the books and pencils that are vital because children cannot go to school without them and the children are the families' hope for a future.

Further down the scale are the swidden farmers who probably grow sticky rice on the hillsides, an environmental problem and, in Laos, an extremely hazardous occupation because of the unexploded bombs and other munitions.

Yields, even in a good year, are poor and food has to be supplemented in any way possible.

Then there are those who live on what the jungle provides: the flowers of the wild banana, the rattan and bamboo shoots, the small creatures and insects, the bear or rare deer.

Choice catches, like a small wild pig or a large lizard, often end up in someone else's cooking pot: they are sold, trussed up, to passing drivers and bus passengers on the country's expanding road system that is attracting families from the remote mountains and jungle.

A small wild pig sells for as little as 6,000 kips – 50p – on the road and the sellers look as pleased as lottery winners.

Underlying economic realities are cultural beliefs, wildly differing in regions where scores of different ethnic groups struggle to survive. Many see the jungle as their natural provider and cannot understand the concept of conservation.

Here, in this collision between the animal world and human needs and beliefs, the killing of a rare tiger and the theft of her cubs for dismembering by the Chinese medicine trade can bring in more cash than most people see in two or three years.

Just killing a bear to eat amounts to a feast. The result has been a terrible slaughter of the animals and birds – and the increasing threat to whole species as more people chase fewer animals and birds.

But now Laos, one of the poorest countries in the world, is doing what it can to conserve its forests and wildlife amid its endemic poverty problems and reports of illegal logging.

A major breakthrough in Luang Prabang province came three years ago when the agriculture and forestry department collected in the hunting guns.

"There were thousands of them," said Somphong Pradichit, the service’s deputy director general. "There are more than 60,000 families in the province and almost all had at least one gun and rural families had two or three."

The officials did not stoke resentment by destroying the weapons. They just put them in a store.

Some families kept back guns or made new ones, although it is now illegal to own or carry a gun. "We couldn't control them all, and hunters still come in from provinces where the guns have not been collected, but it has helped," said Mr Pradichit.

His department's efforts are backed by Lao government laws – in line with international agreements – forbidding the killing of endangered species or the trading in them. But the rest – the wild pigs, for example, like English rabbits – are fair game.

Two casualties of the collision between people and animals are being housed in and near the old royal town of Luang Prabang: one, Phet (pronouced 'pet' and meaning 'diamond') is a sleekly beautiful two-year-old Indo-Chinese tiger which was rescued just hours before she was due to be handed over to a Chinese medicine trader.

She was a week old and had been sold on four times before foresters heard and confiscated her. Her mother had been killed on the Plain of Jars and her two brothers were in such poor condition that they died.

"Phet was very sick and she nearly died too," said Mr Pradichit. "We gave her milk but it was difficult for her to digest. We asked a friend at an EU project to search the internet to get advice."

The advice came from Britain's Care for the Wild International, which told the forestry service what to do to help Phet and then started a long project to rehouse and feed her. She can never be returned to the wild: she cannot hunt and, because she likes people, she would be easy to kill.

Phet played an important part in triggering the establishment of the provincial committee for the rescue of confiscated wild animals (CRCWA) which ties together a powerful alliance drawn from the top officials of the forestry department, the culture and propaganda department, the tourism office and the international cooperation office.

CFWI paid for her 60m by 70m jungle compound at Kuang Si Falls, a visitor attraction outside the town, and makes up any shortfall in the cost of keeping her. The rest comes from gifts from tourists.

The forestry department has involved the people at the nearest village, Ban Thapen, and has appointed the head man as her official keeper.

Although her compound is small compared with a tiger's natural territory, its dense undergrowth for her to hide in and a stream through the middle amount to a thoughtful and practical home.

The other rescue animal is a bear, a few months old, which was kept by a farmer who shot her mother after she attacked him.

She was in as pitiful a condition as Phet when she was rescued and an Australian charity, Save the Bear, has offered to find the cash for a compound next to Phet. At the moment she is being kept in a small run next to the government's guest house – used for top officials when they visit the town – overlooking Luang Prabang.

"People do not like her to be kept like this but it is the best we can do for her,’" said Mr Pradichit. "If we released her, she would be killed.

"People eat bears and any other animals. They do not see why they cannot take anything from the jungle. We are telling them at public meetings and we are telling the children in schools that wildlife must be protected. The children understand but older people do not care – they want to kill and eat them."

The size of Mr Pradichit's problems in protecting wildlife can be seen in a few facts: the provice has 11 districts with two or three foresters in each district; protecting wildlife is in addition to the foresters' usual duties; and they have no transport and travel by public bus; and there is neither budget nor any specialist staff for wildlife protection.

"I would like to form a wildlife team to be more strict with conservation," said Mr Pradichit, whose wildest dreams of funding cannot stretch to having a motorcyle for each district.

But with collecting in the guns, running down some of the poachers and illegal traders, and getting on with the huge job of educating the children, he has made a start.

Luang Prabang

Visit Phet

Front Page

Indo-Chinese tigers

Traumatised, alone, in need of help ... a bear cub whose mother was shot by a farmer


Above, Phet goes for a 'walk' with a local boy who had called her to the fence; and below, if you visit her, sign the book and leave a few thousand kips to help feed her