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Taking Ecotourism to the Next Level

It's a jungle out there—and the community-based conservation initiatives aim to keep it that way. RACHNA SACHASINH heads into the wilds of Southeast Asia for a few lessons on the "look but don't touch" ethos of eco-tourism.

Published on Jun 14, 2017




I am nervous. Actually, I am scared. Really scared. In my mind, crocodiles and tigers are already stuffing me with forest herbs for their rollicking jungle feast.

Kham, a boyish, 42-year-old river guide, is undaunted. After all, this is his backyard. Standing at the prow of our slender long-tailed boat, Kham plunges a sturdy bamboo pole into the shallow, inky waters of the Nam Et River, and eases the skiff effortlessly into the darkness. It is pitch black except for Kham's headlamp, which he aims with predator-like precision to pick out a slow loris here, a barking deer there, an impassive monitor lizard hanging motionless on a gnarled trunk.

Nam Et River
On the Nam Et River in Ban San Loua, Laos. Kees Sprengers.

I am part of a small band of travelers on this Nam Nern Night Safari, a grassroots ecotourism program in northern Laos's Nam Et Phou Louey National Protected Area (NEPL), where village guides lead us through swathes of primordial jungle to catch a glimpse of the critically endangered Indochinese tiger. Wild animals holler and shriek in the distance. Their echoes careen down the ravine like rapid gunfire, giving me palpitations. Kham chuckles each time I am startled. Tapping his suntanned arm, he whispers, "Don't worry, the tiger only likes dark meat." Kham knows very well that my skin is much darker than his.

Well, looking on the bright side, I suppose you could consider getting eaten by a member of a critically endangered species the very definition of sustainable tourism.

And that's the whole reason I'm here. Asia harbors one third of the world's biodiversity "hotspots" and supports a third of its rainforests, according to the International Union of Nature Conservation. It is also one of the most threatened regions, with perilous rates of habitat loss and species endangerment. Conservation experts have begun looking in earnest to ecotourism to help curtail further loss, and when local communities take the lead in safeguarding wildlife, the results can be symbiotic, suprisingly successful endeavors. The Nam Nern Night Safari, for example, has twice been awarded the World Responsible Tourism Award (in 2013 and 2014). Big cats in Laos, dolphins in Burma, owls in Bali… such imaginative community-based conservancy programs would inspire anyone to overcome their healthy fear of jungle beasts.

A baby Indochinese tiger.
A baby Indochinese tiger. Purestock/Gettyimages.


A century ago, thousands of tigers roamed the jungles of Laos. Today, the estimates are in the single digits, perhaps fewer than five. That's a problem not just for the tigers. The presence of such an apex predator species is proof of a robust ecosystem. In NEPL Protected Area, tigers are an important link in a long food chain that includes samba deer, Asian golden cats, civets, bears, barking deer, pythons, wild pigs, slow loris, the Chinese serow, spotted Linsang, dhole, macaque—the list goes on. When one or more are yanked from the chain, its integrity falters, and the entire ecosystem is in danger of crashing.

For the traditional communities who live around NEPL, the forest provides food and building material, including plants, herbs, animal protein and timber. Over the last three decades, however, big sections of the forest were clear-cut to make way for farming and logging (both legal and illegal), leading to a precipitous decline in forest cover and wildlife habitat. More insidiously, Laos is a bustling corridor for the international illegal wildlife trade. Tigers are a particularly lucrative commodity in nearby China, where "luxury" tiger parts fetch thousands of dollars. China also has an insatiable appetite for bears, large cats, ungulates and small mammals that are poached in forests around Asia and transported north across the Lao-China border. It's not hard to see how the lure of a large payout from a tiger, a black bear or a muntjac deer might be irresistible to subsistence farmers and hunters.

In 2011, with the help of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Laos Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, a cluster of villages around the NEPL launched the Nam Nern Night Safari, an innovative ecotourism model tasked in part with rehabilitating the region's pitiful tiger population. The fee for the two-day excursion is used to pay the river guides, cooks, launderers and boat operators, all of whom live in Ban San Koua, the starting point of the excursion. In a neat 'everybody-wins' twist, for each species tourists spot, money is deposited into a village fund that pays for larger building or social projects (like school toilets or books), which benefit the entire community.

Slow boat to Ban San Koua, Laos.
Slow boat to Ban San Koua, Laos. Kees Sprengers.

On my trip, I drift down a river in a virtual no-man's land, sleep in a bamboo hut poised on stilts with lovely colorful handwoven bedding and mosquito nets, and cook foraged greens and freshly caught river fish over an open campfire. It feels all the more poignant in the company of former hunters who have become the forests' chief stewards.

When we arrive back at the ecolodge after the night cruise, we drink tea around a campfire and tally the animals we spotted. None of us saw a tiger—but none of us was disappointed. We had seen a muntjac and a dhole (a type of wild dog), both evidence of a reasonably intact ecosystem. "Lao people cannot live without the forest," Kham and his compatriots tell me. "If the forest goes away and the animals disappear, so do we."

There are about 100 forest-dependent communities within the national park's boundaries. The night safari has been such a steady source of income for the villagers in Ban San Koa that other communities have enlisted WCS program director Sean McNamara, who oversees the progress in NEPL, and his team to help design ecotour programs for them, to help make the full shift away from hunting.

Traditional Lao village serve
Traditional Lao village fare served during the homestay. Kees Sprengers.

In November 2016, there were launch of two such programs, from the villagers in Ban Nam Phoung, Ban Sakok and Ban Navene, on the western periphery of the park in Luang Prabang Province. For intrepid naturalists, the Cloud Forest Climb is a rugged four- to five-day trek to the summit of Phou Louey or "Forever Mountain." Tourists position camera traps along the trail and monitor any wildlife from their smartphones during or at the end of the trek. For a more laidback experience, billet overnight in The Nest, a pod of spherical baskets hanging from cables in the forest canopy that gives a bird's-eye view of wildlife meandering below. Like the night safari, the new eco-programs monetizes each species spotted by tourists, giving villagers an incentive to halt illegal hunting and take an active part in protecting their local woodlands.


It is sensory overload amid a cacophony of motors and mayhem at Mandalay's Mayan Chan Jetty on the banks of the Irrawaddy River in Burma. The river resembles a maritime autobahn, with old-fashioned trawlers and barges, rustic fishing canoes and bamboo rafts jostling for passage. It's unthinkable that any wildlife or fish could survive in this congested waterway, I remark to WCS Ecotourism Manager U Thant Zin who has accompanied me here. "Yes," he concedes, "but we have a plan to change that."

Irrawady River
Fishermen on the Irrawaddy pull in their catch. Minzayar Oo.

Throughout history, monarchs and marauders, pilgrims and pioneers have plied the Irrawaddy, looting timber and gold. In the last half century, deforestation, mining, pollution and dam projects also meddled with the river, doing more harm than good. The Irrawaddy's fisheries have been decimated from the ghastly onslaught of electric fishing.

The critically endangered, short-nose Irrawaddy dolphin is one casualty of the assault. But, as I learned on this trip, the revival of these intelligent beasts is the stuff of a feel-good Hollywood flick, man and animal forming a bond and working together for the common good.

U Thant Zin and I hop on a simple, double-decker ferry, outfitted with a viewing platform and a rustic, albeit charming and entirely agreeable, open-air sleeping quarters on the lower level. Ten kilometers north of Mandalay, past the ancient ruins of Mingun, the Irrawaddy is fat and languid, small fishing boats drift lazily, and the occasional barge piled with bags of rice, earthenware and freshly woven rattan baskets lumbers past. A few kilometers further, we rendezvous with two fishermen, U Min Naing and U Kyaw Soe, who jump aboard from their wooden canoe, and we begin to look for the high, round, slate-colored heads distinctive of this species.

Mingun's temple
Mingun's temple, damaged in an 1839 earthquake. Jane Sweeney/Gettyimages.

Soon we spot a pod of three, their glistening dorsal fins breaking the waterline. The fishermen demonstrate the guttural calls and tapping sounds they use to communicate with the dolphins. When there are fish to be caught, the dolphins will talk back, articulating with fluke signals to instruct the fishermen where to cast their nets and when to pull them back up. When the friendly cetaceans are bored of the game, one flicks its tail, as if to say, "maybe later," and the pod swims off.

We disembark on a large sandy beach, where the fishermen ferry us on bullock carts to Sien Pan Kone village. Over a hearty lunch of traditional Burmese salads and a spicy fish curry, they share stories about the challenges ahead. Though illegal, electric fishing is lucrative, they tell me, and the promise of a quick payout is tempting. The fishermen hope that the ecotourism program will provide a steady source of income and deter their neighbours from pursuing electric fishing.

Irrawaddy dolphins
A lone dorsal fin signals some Irrawaddy dolphins, who travel in pods. Minzayar Oo.

Strolling through the village's picturesque pathways shaded by flowering trees and vines, we stop at a courtyard where women sit on straw mats, weaving gorgeous bamboo conical hats. They invite me to sit down, and give me a quick tutorial. Further on, U Thant Zin points out a site for a future ecolodge. That night, however, we bunk on board the ferry, lulled to sleep by gentle waves lapping on shore.


Visitors to Ubud are bombarded with "eco" and "green" labels at every turn. It is difficult to know what that even means in a place whose very brand depends on being known as a bohemian, yogi burg. Certainly you can find reputable options from transplanted do-gooders, but it's the farmers and fishermen developing homespun experiences that sustain their livelihoods and lands that I find most exciting. One example is Uma Wali, a farmers' cooperative located in Pagi, a stunning farming community a few kilometers from Jatiluwih, the UNESCO World Heritage site whose magnificent terraced rice paddies ascend up to the sky. Which is also where you'll find one of the key partners in this program—owls.

Rice Paddy
Working the paddy in Pagi. Lauryn Ishak.

Equal parts a farm cooperative, a philosophy and an ecotourism program, Uma Wali was founded in 2013 by I Made Jonita and Patu Partayasa, neighbors who've been toiling in paddies since they were young boys. Today, the group is 58 farmers strong, growing and attempting to dismiss the likes of Monsanto and other big agricultural companies from Bali's hinterland. Uma Wali means back to the rice field, and these guys mean it.

When I arrive, Pagi's paddies are bustling with harvest activity: thwacks of machetes slicing chartreuse stalks, the crackle of bamboo windmills threshing grains, the melody of rice being swished back and forth on flat rattan trays. Ankle deep in paddy mud, I do my part and yank clumps of mature rice, their tops plump with ruddy-colored grains, an heirloom varietal of red rice.

Winnowing heirloom red rice
Winnowing heirloom red rice in hand-woven rattan trays, in Pagi. Lauryn Ishak.

Later in the afternoon, sipping red rice tea in I Made Jonita's stone courtyard, surrounded by trusses of flaming red hibiscus, I learn the grave extent to which Bali's beautiful rice fields are in danger. Rice farming here evolved and benefitted from subak, a system of canals that parcel water to rice paddies all over the island. But years of industrial-farming methods used hybrid seeds that required harmful chemicals. This so-called progress ignored the subak's self-regulating mechanisms, leading to an explosion of pests and a bitter cycle of failed harvests and debt.

"I was living like a westerner, not like someone from Bali. I want my children to learn how we can do things the old way and do it better," I Made Jonita tells me. He stopped using chemicals, began cultivating heirloom varietals and planted according to the subak irrigation system. Going green cold-turkey had a rough learning curve. "The first harvest was broken," he says. "Too many insects and rats that ate everything."

The following year, a simple idea turned the tide: reintroducing common barn owls. Uma Wali joined forces with a local NGO called Friends of the National Park Foundation (FNPF), and began breeding and repopulating their fields with the birds, as a natural way to control pests. The project is called Tuwut which means "the right way."

The problem with the wrong way, meaning chemical farming, is that it blows up the whole ecosystem. After years of insecticide use, owls and birds such the Balinese and Java starlings, which feed on insects and vermin, perished or moved away to places that offered more food, says FNPF’s director, Bayu Wirayudha, a vet and wildlife conservationist. Going back to natural farming means bringing back animals as partners. Last year, Uma Wali and FNPF began with one pair of owls; today there are 15 with a few babies on the way.

Barn owls
The common barn owl saves Pagi's red rice harvest, in Bali. Lauryn Ishak.

For a modest fee, Uma Wali provides accommodation in a typical village compound, and you are encouraged to participate in daily life—wading in muddy paddies, cleaning rice barns, bundling temple offerings, even helping the local aunties prepare a wedding feast. The ecotourism program includes building, positioning and monitoring the owls nesting boxes around the village.

I Made Jonita and a group of cheerful, rowdy village kids walk me over to the aviary, where the owls are bred and fed a healthy diet of field rats. From a high branch, a brown-and-white raptor inspects me suspiciously with its enormous black-rimmed eyes. The kids and I look on as I Made Jonita throws in a plump rat. The owl pounces, and the boys and I gasp watching the amorphous shape of the rat slide down his throat. No bigger than my forearm, this guy can make or break a rice harvest.

Kids in Bali
Kids in Bali at the start of the rice harvest. Lauryn Ishak.

Like witnessing the dolphin-Burmese fishing tag-team, this made me think that sometimes the old ways of doing things aren't just quaint and green, but also more productive and progressive. Saving endangered animals can help communities save themselves, preserving their ways of life on their own terms, whether in Burma, Bali or elsewhere.

Back in Laos, the tigers in the protected area are still at sub-breeding population levels and remain hard to spot. But some lucky visitors have been able to track a few. What's more, "There are good populations of golden marbled cats and leopard cats, and other large mammals," the WCS's Sean McNamara had told me. “These are all good indications that the ecosystem is still viable." And if they can repair the links in their food chain without preying on me, so much the better.




Friends of the National Park Foundation (FNPF)
Nusa Penida, Indonesia

Help reforest the island's denuded hillsides and monitor the Balinese Starling, an endangered species being bred and released.; from Rp100,000 per person per day.

Sam Veasna Centre

The Sam Veasna Centre offers several community-based ecotourism programs across the country. For example, you can follow the endangered ibis in the savannah-like landscape of Tmatboey, north of Siem Reap. Or, help the indigenous Bunong community rehabilitate the critically endangered white-cheeked gibbon in the highlands of Mondulkiri, the country's northeastern province.; from US$80 for one-day visit and US$150 for overnight per person.

Elephant Nature Park
Chiang Mai, Thailand

An elephant sanctuary where the pachyderms come to recover from abuse and injury. There are no rides or shows here. Instead visitors can stay on to learn about elephant behavior and care for the mighty, emotive creatures.; from Bt2,500 per person.







Nam Nern Night Safari from LAK1,800,000 per person.

Ayeyarwady Dolphin Ecotourism from US$100 for boat rental for up to six people, and US$20 per person for two-hour cast net demonstration.

Uma Wali from Rp300,000 per guest per day.



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The common barn owl saves Pagi's red rice harvest, in Bali. Lauryn Ishak.
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