Wildlife Protection In Laos
The loss of biodiversity across the planet is escalating. The tropical regions of the world provide some of the largest reservoirs of diverse plant and animal species. The country of Lao PDR, located within the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot, is a biologically rich country owing to its location and tropical climate. It is home to several internationally important species. At the same time, it is one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, with the majority of citizens living in rural areas. Thus, meat from wild animals is an important source of food in rural areas of the country. Sale of this meat also provides income since it is popular across Laotian society. Other uses include religious practices and traditional medicines.
Wildlife can play a key role in food security if taken sustainably. However, earlier studies suggest that mammals and birds have suffered losses upwards of 80% across the tropics. Amphibians and reptiles are also under threat. Lao PDR is a party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and has its own wildlife and aquatic law. It has also set aside large swaths of land in protected areas. Lao’s government has stepped up the penalties for and enforcement of violations of laws prohibiting the capture and trade of threatened species. Nonetheless, illegal poaching and sale continue.
Little is known about the actual impact of wildlife consumption on the survival of various local species. To gain some insight into this issue, researchers surveyed both markets and households in the central Laotian province of Khammouane, a province that is in central Lao but also borders Vietnam and Thailand. As such, it connects important trade hubs providing the potential for trafficking of illegal goods. Researchers gathered data in 2017 and 2018 to learn what drives the wildlife trade there, the species affected, and what role wildlife play in a total of 63 households, with about two-thirds being rural. Animals of interest included terrestrial mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. Market surveys were conducted at 15 trade hubs to learn which species were traded and to what extent. Since they offered large numbers of wildlife for sale, temporary trading stalls along major highways were also surveyed.
The results documented trade in 66 wildlife species, mainly for food. Birds, squirrels, rats, and frogs were the most frequently traded. More than half are protected under either Laotian law or international convention. Approximately 90% of households confirmed the use of wildlife. Rural citizens captured animals primarily for food rather than trade, viewing wild meat as far more affordable than meat from domesticated animals, while urban residents claimed it was more expensive. Even so, urban dwellers preferred wild to domesticated meat, perhaps based on traditional superstitions or as a status symbol. And possibly most troubling, 84% of respondents thought the wildlife markets had changed over time, noting that the availability of wild meat had decreased. Indeed, at current levels, the available populations of wild species will not keep up with demand if it remains unchanged.
As animal advocates, we want to preserve and protect all animals. However, this study illustrates some of the conflicts inherent in our work. In this extremely poor country, wildlife is a food source for people who may have few other options. A simple ban on wildlife trade or consumption is likely to fail and drive these activities underground. Given this, our efforts on behalf of animals must be sensitive to the plights of both the animals and the people. We need to seek assistance from those affected to craft strategies that improve their food security while protecting wildlife in this ecologically valuable region.