Battling illegal wildlife trafficking in Laos
Laos is a spectacular country in South East Asia, bordered by China, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia. The country is popular for its beautiful nature with rugged mountains, the Mekong River and large stretches of forest. The country is also home to a wide variety of wildlife including many endangered species. Unfortunately, the geographical positioning of Laos makes it a major highway for illegal trafficking of wildlife.
History of Laos
Laos' recent history is dark. The country experienced a civil war while being involved in the Cold War. As a result, Laos remains one of the poorest countries in Asia. Between 1964 and 1973, more bombs were dropped on Laos than in the entirety of World War II. One-third of those bombs did not detonate. This means that to this day bombs pose a major threat to the people and wildlife. This is the case for some of the poorest areas of the country. In fact, 42 out of the 46 poorest districts are affected, according to the UNDP.
Over the last 30 years, the country's human development indicators have improved. Lao people now attend school for 3 years longer than in 1990. The life expectancy has also increased by more than 13 years. However, the wars, political struggles and continued explosions created negative circumstances which forced the Lao people into hunting wildlife.
Wildlife Trafficking in Laos
Laos is home to a large array of endangered animals that are threatened by hunting, habitat loss, logging, illegal trafficking and trade. These endangered species include the Malayan sun bear, the pangolin, tiger and clouded leopard. Wildlife trafficking in Laos ranges greatly including live turtles, the sale of monkeys as pets and bears trafficked for bear bile farms. Popular sales of animal products such as, tiger bone wine is connected to the country’s many tiger farms. It is even harder to stop the poaching of these animals from the wild when there is the continued presence of these farms.
This trafficking hub doesn’t only affect precious wildlife in Laos. This illegal activity also includes the trade of animal body parts from Africa, most often sent through Laos to Vietnam and China. The illegal wildlife trade thrives in Laos because of the present corruption and the lack of regulations on money moving between borders. Markets operating along the border are especially popular for illegal animal-related trading.
Efforts to Increase Regulations
There are some signs of improvement in the illegal wildlife trade in Laos. In 2004, the country joined the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) agreement. This declares the trade of wildlife products illegal in the region. Despite this, it is widely reported that the Laotian government often do not abide by the declaration or the outlined regulations. The Government reportedly cut certain deals that allowed £35 million worth of animal body parts to be trafficked across the border to China and Vietnam in 2014.
However, in the last few years the government has been cracking down on areas like the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (SEZ). Here, the sale of endangered animal meat and products like tiger bone wine, bear bile powder and ivory bracelets was common. Since a government raid in 2015, the amount of shops openly selling illegal animal products appears to be decreasing. Unfortunately, many fear that this has just driven the trade ‘underground’. Therefore, the need to tackle the illegal trafficking is further exacerbated today.
The Laos Wildlife Sanctuary
Our partner in Laos aims to make a difference to the ongoing illegal wildlife trade there. In 2015, the owners of the Laos Zoo called on other wildlife NGOs to help tackle the issue. In 2018, they established a non-profit wildlife sanctuary and Trust. By working together, they have been able to make great improvements in the welfare of Laotian wildlife.
Hardworking staff and volunteers facilitate numerous programmes aiming to rescue, rehabilitate and release wildlife. The Laos Wildlife Sanctuary works with local authorities to investigate and rescue animals from cases of illegal trafficking. This includes a trained rescue team on call 24/7, ready to respond to calls about any species in need. Each rescued animal is quarantined under veterinarian supervision. Animals receive any needed treatment and rehabilitation to reach optimal health. Then, whenever possible the animals are then returned to the wild.
Unfortunately, for some of the rescued animals release is not possible. This could be for many reasons including physical and mental disorders developed from the poor conditions they were previously kept in. Animals unable to be released back into the wild are re-homed in the Wildlife Sanctuary. Here they live in large enclosures with important mental stimuli designed to replicate their natural environment. The Laos team has made significant improvements to the conditions of the animal enclosures from what they were in the former national zoo. There are now enough appropriately large spaces created for its original residents as well as the new rescued wildlife. See below the Bear Parks and The Primate Forest full of places to forage, play and cool down in the pool!
The Sanctuary also runs educational outreach programmes with local people. Through these programmes, they educate Lao people about the wildlife around them and their importance. They also give them access to important knowledge about how to best protect it. They hope to continue expanding on these programmes into the future, with plans to become a world-class rescue, conservation and education centre!
Volunteering at the Wildlife Sanctuary
The Laos Wildlife Sanctuary is doing remarkable work. Formerly a zoo, the sanctuary is now at the forefront helping to put a stop to illegal wildlife trafficking and also rescuing many animals that are caught up in its path. Animals unable to be released back into the wild they now enjoy a safe life safe. As you can imagine, looking after all the animals at the sanctuary is a huge task.
The help of volunteers around the centre is invaluable to the cause. Volunteers at the Sanctuary help local staff with various tasks including, cleaning and maintaining enclosures, providing enrichment for the animals, as well observation and monitoring certain species. Once travelling resumes, why not join us to help out at the sanctuary and see the great work for yourself.