Mitigating a classic human-elephant conflict – community-based tourism

Mitigating a classic human-elephant conflict – community-based tourism

Laos
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

“Phou Khao Khouay” is the closest National Protected Area to the Vientiane, the capital of Laos, once proudly called “Lane Xang”, the “Land of One Million Elephants”. This park so close to Vientiane and of 2000 km² in size, though heavily degraded in earlier times, is home to some important wildlife in Laos such as tiger, clouded leopard, bears, and elephant. Especially to the south the park is surrounded by numerous human settlements with subsequent danger of encroachment to the park. Two hydro-power projects add to the problems wildlife faces with human interference. The latter may also have pushed elephants from the mountains to the outskirts, increasingly forcing them to raid nearby farmlands - surely not to the pleasure of the affected farmers. This arising conflict finally culminated in the killing of elephants, jail sentences and hefty fines. Calls for permanently eliminating the elephants were commonly heard.

A community-based tourism development project in Ban Na, only about 80 km east of Vientiane and the most affected village, has, with considerable success, achieved to mitigate this conflict and calls itself now the “elephant village”, where tourists from all over the world can watch wild elephants in their natural habitat from an observation tower.

Your idea
This will be the address used to plot your entry on the map.
Street Address

Ban Na

City

Vientiane

State/Province

Bolikhamsa

Postal/Zip Code

Box 9899

Country
Year innovation began

2001

Geotourism Challenge Addressed by Entrant

Quality of benefit to the people of the desitination

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Indicate sector in which you principally work

Tourism-related business

Geographic location

Rural.

Plot your innovation within the Mosaic of Solutions
Main barrier addressed

Cross-cultural myopia

Main insight addressed

Establish community incentives

Innovation
What is the goal of your innovation?

Create a model for environment/wildlife protection through the help of community-based tourism instigated by mitigating an elephant-human conflict.

How does your approach support or embody geotourism?

Tourism is seen as the key for sustainability of this project. Tourists want to see something new but also contribute to something that helps the environment and the local people alike. Our approach allows the visitors to have adventure while learning about village life by living in the village (direct contact) in small numbers and to learn about the hardship villagers may experience through wildlife. Tourists can actively observe the conflict between humans and large wild (endangered) animals and contribute to finding solutions in order to mitigate this stand-off.

Laos is trying to establish itself as a world class eco-tourism destination. There is no similar approach in the area to see wild elephants and it is definitely unique for Laos, thus giving the Lao tourism development another product that is not trying to copy others.

Describe your approach in detail. How is it innovative?

The heart of the project is an Elephant Observation Tower. From here, located at a natural saltlick at the edge of a National Park, tourists can see elephants in their natural habitat. Sightings are, of course, not guaranteed, since the animals are wild, but the chances are good and possible “no-show-ups” properly explained. It is a great experience to sleep on a safe tower, seven meter above ground, in-midst the jungle and to wake up in the morning mist being surrounded by a concert of bird songs.

The tourists have direct contact with villagers, either in the village itself if they use the service of home-stay or at least with the guides (always two are required for safety reasons), who guide, prepare food and also know a lot of stories to tell (if not in English then in Lao and sign language –it works!). This gives a good understanding of the different cultures (people from many different nationalities come to visit the tower).

The village benefits from the income as does the district and the park from where the elephants come. The number of tourists is limited in order to lower security risks and to promote a real “eco”-experience.

What types of partnerships or professional development would be most beneficial in spreading your innovation?

We would like to work more closely with organisations that are also engaged in wildlife protection (WWF, WCS and many more, either in-country but also international) and would like to exchange knowledge or do complementary work (e.g. research) that we alone cannot do due to lack of funding, technical equipment and/or expertise. Joint marketing, where feasible, would be of help to promote the common goals and achievements.

It would be good if (tour) companies not only would seek a “cheap” destination for their business but also to support the goals of the project. First steps, though, have been done.

Impact
In one sentence describe what kind of impact, change, or reform your approach is intended to achieve.

Educate local people as well as tourists about the importance of wildlife conservation.

Describe the degree of success of your approach to date. Clearly define how you measure quantitative and qualitative impact in terms of how your approach contributes to the sustainability or enhancement of local culture, environment, heritage, or aesthetics? How does your approach minimize negative impacts? 200 words or less

The degree of success I measure with: (1) the increasing number of tourists coming, (2) the blogs I can find in the internet (e.g. chat pages etc., Travelfish, private websites), telling others that Ban Na is a “must go”, (3) the interest of ANIMAL PLANET in the project, (4) the requests from all over the world of becoming volunteer/trainee, (5) the interest of other development projects to learn from our work, (6) the various press inquiries, and, last not least the obvious happiness of the people of Ban Na..

The villagers have been advised to use materials as much as possible, to let the visitors participate in festivities if applicable and so on.

In the village meetings they were advised to have an eye on children not to start begging, to keep their Lao traditions alive (because that’s also what the visitors would like to see), do not try to get excessive money from tourists. The tourists are informed how to behave in a rural village society (together with the National Tourism Administration). The number of visitors at one time is limited to 8 on the tower in order not to disturb the “wildlife experience” as well as the elephants.

How does your program promote traveler enthusiasm, satisfaction, and engagement with the locale?

The fact to have a chance to see wild elephants at close range is creating enthusiasm. It is exciting to wait for the elephants listening to the sounds in the night. But even if the animals do not show up, alone spending a night on the tower is for the vast majority a great experience, as some put It ‘ like living on a tree house”. Seeing elephants is for many just an “extra”, although they’re the “object of the desire”. The guides are enthusiastic, too, thus giving the tourists a feeling of really being welcome. An extra home-stay is encouraged.

In what ways are local residents actively involved in your innovation, including participation and community input? How has the community responded to or benefited from your approach?

During the entire project implementation period the villagers were always informed and asked for their opinion, mostly in village meetings (starting with the very basic question whether they at all wanted to have tourism in the village…). The discussions during such village meetings were often very lively (seen as good sign of involvement). Now it’s the villagers themselves who make the decisions because it has become a wholly village owned “business”. Also the use of the revolving fund, which already accumulated considerable money, is controlled by the villagers (elected fund management team plus supervising team with female and male members).

Describe how your innovation helps travelers and local residents better understand the value of the area’s cultural and natural heritage, and educates them on local environmental issues. How do you motivate them to act responsibly in their future travel decisions?

Tourists show keen interest in the goals of the project. The feed-back, e.g. the guestbook, chat pages etc., is great and encouraging. They learn first hand about the problems villagers encounter when living close to animals “competing” for the same crops. The villagers learn to live with and appreciate wildlife, since elephants are not anymore the enemies but seen as an asset worth to protect - but they are also proud, because many outsiders are suddenly interested in the achievements of the Ban Na people. The same is true for the local authorities. They see: only an intact environment brings monetary rewards.

Sustainability
Is your initiative financially and organizationally sustainable? If not, what is required to make it so? What is the potential demand for your innovation?

We definitely believe so. Since two years, the project is managed by the villagers and financing itself without any help from outside. The popularity is increasing as is the number of tourists arriving. Different organizations, even from Thailand, come to see the achievements and learn from the project.

We nevertheless need to improve the standards to finally serve as a real model applicable in other sectors. Therefore we need to find support for a second phase, which means to improve the services and the knowledge about the elephants, but not to keep the project as such alive.

How is your initiative currently financed? If available, provide information on your finances and organization that could help others. Please list: Annual budget, annual revenue generated, size of part-time, full-time and volunteer staff.

The project is now generating enough income to finance itself. There is no fixed annual budget as it has to rely on the “market” forces. A clear price system for the services is in place.

Volunteers provided by Open Mind Projects in Nongkhai (Thailand) teach English and help occasionally in other fields free of charge (or against food and lodging). There is no hired personnel as such, all persons involved are villagers and volunteering, except the guides who get a fee for they guiding service (rotation system), and Mr. Bounthanom gets 30 Dollars a month for his management activities.

What is your plan to expand your approach? Please indicate where/how you would like to grow or enhance your innovation, or have others do so.

Our common goal is to let the elephants live in peace, provide a good wildlife experience for tourists, foreign and local alike, and to establish a model for environment protection (even it’s only on a small scale basis) in other areas of rural development.
A second phase of the project has been drafted. Unfortunately, adequate funding has not yet been found. This second phase cannot be implemented by the villagers alone, they need an expert’s advice. This phase shall include more training for villagers, establish more educational facilities (“nature trail”, information centre), do thorough research on the elephants, test alternative methods of keeping elephants from the fields, get more villagers actively engaged, introduce more handicraft, improve accommodation, involve local schools…

What are the main barriers you encounter in managing, implementing, or replicating your innovation? What barriers keep your program from having greater impact?

The project is running very well. The barrier is to find some more financial and technical support (which includes a professionally trained adviser) for a limited period of time (2-3 years) to push through a second phase as already stated. Though running well the project is now kept somehow where it is without further significant improvement. The villagers, as simple farmers, naturally lack the educational background or experience that goes beyond the village boundaries as well as the facilities and financial means to further develop the project in the sense of innovation to satisfy international market demands. It is still a raw product to be fine-tuned.

The Story
What is the origin of your innovation? Tell your story.

Working on eco-tourism development in the Phou Khao Khouay National Protected Area (PKK NPA) to support the park management to find financial solutions for its huge management task through tourism, we learned about a simmering elephant- human conflict at the edge of the park and that farmers began to shoot elephants when raiding their fields. We carefully approached the affected villages and it finally came down to one seriously attacked village, Ban Na. After several village meetings asking for their willingness and support – we started to develop tourism there from the scratch – not yet knowing where the project will go. The early idea was to offer adventurous tourists the opportunity to track down elephants without much more service. We quickly realized that this was neither beneficial enough for the villagers nor would it be good for the elephants being “chased” all the time. Finally the idea came up to build an elephant observation tower, from where tourists can safely watch elephants with a minimum of disturbance of the elephants. We would be able to regulate the stream of tourists (obeying a maximum number of visitors at one time = carrying capacity), and the villagers would benefit financially from the new visitors. The goal was that the villagers themselves could manage their tourism business, and, in turn, would give the elephants a chance to be left in peace. In short: mitigate the elephant-human conflict with alternative income, offer an exciting experience for tourists, learning about wildlife for villagers and tourists alike, making “friends out of foes”.

Mr. Bounthanom, a rice farmer and who is now the guide leader and tourism manager in the village was the first who shot an elephant in 1999. Now he is turned to be conservationist with all his heart (as featured in ANIMAL PLANET). Without him the project would hardly be reality. The project is small, but the number of tourists is increasing. The attitude of the people in and around the village has measurably changed. No elephant was harmed anymore by a villager from the area and though poaching occurred (definitely by outsiders!) the villagers were very sad about these three incidents. Even after a man in a neighbouring village was killed by elephants in a tragic accident, no call of removing elephants was heard. Tourists bring money for the guides, village revolving fund (steadily increasing), the park authorities and district for trekking permits, for the maintenance of the tower, with a certain percentage set aside for compensation in case of serious damage caused by elephants, as well as income through home-stay, food sale, handicraft etc. A Nongkhai-based (Thailand) volunteer placement organisation (www.openmindprojects.org) is helping in providing volunteers for teaching English to the villagers and other assistance like establishing the website for the project (www.trekkingcentrallaos.com). Since two years the project is now run by the village itself and is still prospering. The villagers recruit and train new guides, learn English and maintain the (safety of) the tower and improve their services entirely on their own.

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Trained as biologist, I worked as an adviser to the Lao National Tourism Administration for eco-tourism development from 2000 to 2006 and was engaged for nearly 5 years in that capacity in Ban Na (and another village, Ban Hatkhai, no elephants here) and Phou Khao Khouay National Protected Area. My sending organization was the German Development Service (DED). Though not directly connected with the project anymore, I still support the village occasionally on a voluntary basis. Before that, I worked with the Department of Forestry in Laos (1997-2000) as adviser for environmental education and public awareness.

Please write an overview of your project. This text will appear when people scroll over the icon for your entry on the Google map located on the competition homepage.

“Phou Khao Khouay” is the closest National Protected Area to the Vientiane, the capital of Laos, once proudly called “Lane Xang”, the “Land of One Million Elephants”. This park so close to Vientiane and of 2000 km² in size, though heavily degraded in earlier times, is home to some important wildlife in Laos such as tiger, clouded leopard, bears, and elephant. Especially to the south the park is surrounded by numerous human settlements with subsequent danger of encroachment to the park. Two hydro-power projects add to the problems wildlife faces with human interference. The latter may also have pushed elephants from the mountains to the outskirts, increasingly forcing them to raid nearby farmlands - surely not to the pleasure of the affected farmers. This arising conflict finally culminated in the killing of elephants, jail sentences and hefty fines. Calls for permanently eliminating the elephants were commonly heard.

A community-based tourism development project in Ban Na, only about 80 km east of Vientiane and the most affected village, has, with considerable success, achieved to mitigate this conflict and calls itself now the “elephant village”, where tourists from all over the world can watch wild elephants in their natural habitat from an observation tower.