Laos National Parks & Geographic Highlights
Despite decades of war in the late 20th century, Laos has retained almost 50 percent of its forest cover. It has more Asian elephants in ratio to humans than anywhere else, Indochinese tigers, leopards, marbled and golden cats, along with some of the world’s most beautiful birds.
Clouded leopards and creatures unknown anywhere else, as well as some 640 species of dazzling birds, find homes here in one of Southeast Asia’s least disturbed ecosystems, still almost 50 percent forest-covered.
Foraging under wooded canopies in this small landlocked country of 92,040 square miles (236,000 km2) bordered by China, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam are Asiatic black bears, Malayan sun bears, and wild Asian elephants. Laos— called in antiquity “Lan Xang” or Land of a Million Elephants— has more of these great beasts in ratio to humans than anywhere else: one for every 7,000 persons, including perhaps 1,100 employed in logging or agriculture.
Only discovered in 1992 was the saola or spindlehorn ox, and in 1996 the Annamite striped rabbit which may be a new genus. Other mammals found only in this region include black-cheeked gibbons, douc langurs, and giant muntjacs or barking deer. Shared with some of its neighbors are such rare species as Indochinese tigers, leopards, Asian golden cats, stump-tailed macaques, Malayan and Chinese pangolins, five kinds of flying squirrels, Javan and crab-eating mongooses.
Among remarkable rare birds are flaming Siamese firebacks, lovely sarus cranes, giant ibis,strutting, peacock-like green peafowl, Asian golden weavers, white-winged ducks, red-collared woodpeckers, coral-billed ground cuckoos, and tawny fish owls.
Perhaps rarest of all, frolicsome blue-gray Irrawaddy dolphins cut through waters of the Mekong River, at recent count only about 15 surviving, their long-term outlook bleak unless gill-net fishing can be controlled on the Cambodian side of the border.
Laos, after nearly 20 years of virtual isolation, began in the 1990s to open toward the outside world, and in 1993, working in consultation with the Wildlife Conservation Society, gave legal protection to 20 National Protected Areas (NPAs). These now cover some 12,500 square miles (32,000 km2), more than 12 percent of the country, and WCS has recommended an additional 11 sites. They are not preserves—forests can be selectively logged—and at least until recently, visitor facilities have been minimal-to-nonexistent. But it is a start, and for those determined to see these places, tour agencies and government tourism authority offices in Vientiane, LuangNamtha, and Pakse can help organize trips.
Serious threats remain. Sensitive species and habitats here face less immediate danger than with some of Laos’ neighbors due to relative lack of population pressure—Laos has one of Asia’slowest population densities, about 53 persons per square mile (21 per km2), though it is growing at about 2.5 percent per year. However, there is little capacity to enforce existing conservation laws. Subsistence poaching by native people takes a heavy toll, as does smuggling of rare species for the pet trade and as ingredients in folk medicine. Shifting cultivation and illegal logging cause habitat destruction. “Walls of death”—barriers of bamboo, thatch, and small trees—are placed in forests (even in national parks) with small openings where any passing animal is snared by leg or neck to die slowly and painfully. Explosives are used to catch fish, killing all indiscriminately and damaging lakes and streams. Over 20 hydrological projects are planned with potentially disastrous effects. The population generally lacks environmental awareness or concern—and for those offended by animal cruelty, market practices are distasteful, to understate it.
On the other hand, Laotions consume far less of their own natural resources than people of any “developed” country.
Two of the most rewarding NPAs for wilderness travel are NAM HA and PHOU HIN PHOUN.
ALSO OF INTEREST
Mount Hkakabo-Razi National Park, Myanmar’s largest park—1,472 square miles (3,812 km2)—recently gazetted with help of WCS working with local communities, protecting red pandas,ox-like takins, black muntjac deer previously thought endemic to China, blue sheep, stone martens. Community development programs have been started to educate and enlist local people in park support, also to provide salt after discovery that many animals are poached to provide for this scarce item without which people suffer from sometimes fatal iodine deficiency.
Kyatthin Reserve, 104 forested square miles (268 km2) about 100 miles (160 km) northwest of Mandalay with leopards, wild dogs, banteng, hog deer, Indian muntjacs and macaques, possibly also rare white-winged wood ducks.
Tamanthi Reserve, Myanmar’s second largest wildlife sanctuary, 830 square miles (2,150 km2), 600 air miles (1,000 km) north of Yangon, largely intact evergreen and semievergreen forest with leopards, tigers, wild dogs, hoolock gibbons, green peafowl, and good populations of Asian elephants.
Hlawga National Park, one of the country’s most accessible, 45 minutes’ drive from Yangon, with more than 70 species of herbivorous fauna, 90 species of birds.
Inle Lake, 389 square miles (1,010 km2) of shallow waters and marshes in central Myanmar with cranes, lesser spotted eagles, many winter waterfowl migrants, white-tailed stonechats, and rare, local Jerdon’s bushchats.
Lampi Island, the country’s first marine national park.
Mohingyi Reserve, with storks, migrant ducks and waders.
Popa Mountain Park, also relatively accessible, with monkeys that have become habituated to human visitors.
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