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Three advances for tiger conservation for Lao PDR and beyond

Tony Whitten's picture
An infra-red night shot of an Indochinese Tiger (© WCS Lao/NEPL NPA). See more nightshots of wildlife here.

A high point of last week was getting notice from the CEO of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) that she had approved the initial project document for an exciting conservation project in NE Lao PDR worth $1 million.  This had been long awaited and the team was coming to terms with the idea that it was unlikely to survive. That made getting the approval to fully prepare the project all the sweeter. Given that this week was the start of the Year of the Tiger, it is significant that this project focuses on Nam Et-Phou Loei (NEPL) National Protected Area, the most important tiger site in Lao PDR, and a site acknowledged as a global priority for tiger conservation (pdf).

We’re hoping the project will be able to demonstrate replicable innovations in protected area management that will increase the sustainability and effectiveness of the entire national protected area system. This currently suffers from gaps in staff capacity and inadequate financial resources. To help with this we intend that the project will put in place - for the first time in Laos – both working models of effective zoning that incorporate sustainable wildlife use for community subsistence, and control of illegal hunting for trade.

Half of the NEPL area has been the focus of a  conservation project between the government and Wildlife Conservation Society  (WCS) for the last decade and this has established a solid foundation of staff, equipment, monitoring and institutional procedures that we can help build on such that the project can cover  the entire protected area.  WCS has had a systematic program of infra-red camera trapping there and some of their best wildlife photos – including tigers – can be seen online
 

A view of Nam Et - Phou Loei (© E. Briggs 2009)

Last month, actions against the very serious trafficking in illegal wildlife – including tigers - in Lao PDR got a boost when the World Bank, thanks to a small grant from the Global Tiger Initiative, Save the Tiger Fund and a number of local donors, joined with a range of government agencies, non-governmental organizations, international organizations, companies and youth volunteers to spread a conservation message to the thousands of Lao nationals and international visitors who were in Vientiane for the 25th South East Asia Games.

The event was a great celebration for participants and spectators from across the region and had the theme “generosity, amity and healthy lifestyle”. In this context the campaign message was “every time you buy wildlife… nature pays” and this was seen on billboards, airport banners, in advertisements, on TV, on bumper stickers, on T-shirts etc.  Before and during the Games, the Vientiane authorities – which have made massive strides over the last few years in controlling wildlife trade - carried out inspections of 18 markets and suspected selling points of illegal wildlife to suppress the domestic trade. Given that between 2002-2009 17 tigers are known to have been killed in NEPL for the wildlife trade, we all wish the campaign every success.

Meanwhile, as the world’s press has widely reported, the First Asian Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation has just closed in Hua Hin, not far from Bangkok. This is the Global Tiger Initiative’s next step after Kathmandu along the path towards a Tiger Summit to be held in Vladivostok in the Fall. World Bank President Robert Zoellick sent a taped video message and said “There will be no room left for tigers and other wildlife in Asia without a more responsible and sustainable program for economic growth and infrastructure".

This last point connects with an important, recently-completed World Bank study presented at the meeting by our favorite Colombian environmental engineer, Juan Quintero – Smart Green Infrastructure in Tiger Range Countries (pdf).  As the title suggests, this looks at sustainable and measureable ways of softening the footprint of the vast numbers of planned developments in the tiger range countries. It used to have three principles, but these have been expanded by the governments at Hua Hin into six:

  1. No infrastructure development in ‘critical/core/source’ tiger habitats.  Decommission existing infrastructure in such habitats.
  2. In buffer and corridor habitats where avoidance is not possible, minimize and mitigate impacts via improved design, and then compensate for any remaining impacts through biodiversity offsets or financial transfer mechanisms.
  3. Build in a mechanism for enforcing a compliance mechanism throughout the life of the project to ensure that at least minimal environmental safeguards are adhered to.
  4. Compensation should be channeled back to the core critical tiger habitat or tiger landscape where the infrastructure project is implemented.
  5. Harmonize tiger habitat conservation at national policy and sectoral planning by coordinating with other intergovernmental and relevant planning sector agencies
  6. Develop tools such as Strategic Environmental Assessment.
Infrared night shot of a Sambar Deer (© WCS Lao/NEPL NPA). See more nightshots of wildlife here.

The way is clear – but getting practical application of these approaches from the national governments and from all their sources of finance (among which the World Bank is very small) is a huge challenge. It is encouraging to learn that in Lao PDR those developing the National Tiger Action Plan (also under a grant from the GTI) are giving close attention to work such as this. 

The meeting closed with a declaration (pdf) that the range states would redouble efforts on the ground to halt the decline of tigers, assist in recovery of habitats, and double the number of wild tigers by 2022.  This is good, but we can all list missed government targets.  It just goes to show that everyone has to do all they can to make it a reality.  I really believe that Nam Et-Phou Loei and its currently small but significant tiger population can make a real contribution to reaching the target.