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Intervention management of wildlife in Nam Theun 2

Tony Whitten's picture
A baby black gibbon

I did my PhD field research on black gibbons. I mean really black—black skin, black fur everywhere, and even the whites of their eyes seemed black when they were at the top of tall forest trees and I was wandering around on the forest floor. How I longed to be in the position of my peers studying zebras or lions or elephants—they could distinguish dozens of individuals by their markings. I couldn’t even find a candidate for Scarface or Four-Toes or Ripped-Ear. Over time I could tell my group’s adults (whose black nether regions also appeared identical at a distance) apart by their individual mannerisms, but then only when I had a good view, which was rare. The inability to reliably distinguish between them limited the extent to which I could ‘experiment’ with them and thereby collect new levels of information.

Most of the conservation projects I am involved with tend to bring the same sort of frustrations. At the Bank we finance activities, woo recalcitrant partners, encourage policy changes, encourage local involvement, deal with the pressures from competing land uses, and measure indicators which we trust will show the intended positive outcomes. A great deal of care goes into choosing the indicators, but in the end they are no more than ‘indicators’—something merely indicating that some broader change is happening, and we make all manner of assumptions about which interventions will have the impacts and outcomes we desire. As a scientist I miss the rigor of scientific method, of data collection, the ability to analyze the results using good statistics, and then to apply those findings to management in an iterative, adaptive manner. Part of the reason is the relative brevity of most of our projects and the problems of collecting good, long-term data. Recently, however, I was buoyed up by seeing some good long-term work which is using rigorous methods to collect action-oriented data.

During the long preparation stages of the Nam Theun 2 hydropower project, the Nam Theun 2 Power Company (NTPC), the company responsible for the dam, reservoir and management of the Nakai plateau over the next 25 years, hired some of the greatest names in Southeast Asian zoology to survey the plateau which would be partly occupied by the reservoir. It is now one of the best studied areas in Asia. The team found a number of salt licks and small wetlands which would be inundated and so NTPC agreed to compensate for their loss by constructing 30 artificial wetlands and eight artificial salt licks. All deer, cattle and other ungulates depend on various salts of sodium, carbonate, magnesium for their health, and these are found in certain exposed rocks/soil and springs where the water has passed through the underlying rocks. The new salt licks have minerals regularly ploughed into them. 

I was able to accompany Jim Johnson of NTPC (now working at the National Tourism Authority of Laos) to the eastern forest fringe of the reservoir to see some of the work they had completed. Jim had earlier been employed by WCS to work on the Nakai Plateau to set up the wildlife monitoring protocols described in a blog of my former colleague, Nanda Gasparini.

The accompanying video shows a wetland and a saltlick created by NTPC. The monitoring of their use—counting tracks and collecting photos from infra-red trip cameras—is producing quantities of good data which over time will help identify the trends in population sizes of the ground animals (including the increasingly troublesome feral buffaloes) to be calculated and the impacts of the management regimes assessed, which will point to innovations in management approach which may be necessary. NTPC are in for the long haul and are working closely with the government’s Watershed Management and Protection Authority on this so that the tasks and necessary skills can be transferred. Monitoring is so important in conservation because of the many agents which influence results. In this case I hope that the findings will be applicable not just in relation to the reservoir but more widely too. The photos will likely allow individual elephants, bear, wild cats, deer, wild pigs etc. to be identified and, who knows, there may even be a Scarface.

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