What is the origin of your innovation? Tell the Changemakers and media communities what prompted you to start this initiative.
At a time aiming to support the park management in its efforts to find sustainable solutions for its huge conservation task through tourism, we became aware of a smoldering 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 interest and support – we started to develop tourism there from the scratch – an endeavor with open end.
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 was the first who shot an elephant in 1999. He finally turned his heart, being a genuine conservationist now - a remarkable change that even attracted ANIMAL PLANET (Discovery Channel) to feature him. He is now the guide leader and tourism manager in the village. Without him the project would have hardly been realized.
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 neighboring 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 Thailand-based volunteer placement organization (www.openmindprojects.org) is helping by providing volunteers who teach English and give other assistance like establishing the website for the project (www.trekkingcentrallaos.com) to the village. Since two years the project is run by the village itself and it 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.
Please provide a personal bio. Note this may be used in Changemakers' marketing material.
Trained as biologist, I first worked in Laos with the Department of Forestry (1997-2000) as adviser for environmental education and public awareness. I then switched to the Lao National Tourism Administration as consultant for eco-tourism development from 2000 to 2006 and was active in that capacity for nearly 5 years in two villages (Ban Na, Ban Hatkhai) and Phou Khao Khouay National Protected Area. Though not directly connected with the project anymore, I still support the village on a voluntary basis. Currently I am employed by “Green Discovery Laos”, a leading adventure tours and eco-tourism operator, as senior adviser.
Describe some unique tourist experiences that your approach provides. Be specific; give illustrative examples.
After a day of trekking through rice fields and dense forest, enjoying sweeping waterfalls and giggling rapids in crystal-clear streams and hiking full of suspense inside elephant territory, it is a great experience to watch out for the elephants themselves. They, young and old, come to the saltlick, usually during night, and take a bath there in a puddle of water, delightfully smacking, burping, moaning and trumpeting. One may have heard them already during the day from a distance, but to get so close to them from the safety of the tower is simply breath-taking and unforgettable. Sleeping there is like spending the night in a tree-house, seven meter above ground, deep in the jungle, and woken up in the morning mist and first sun rays in-midst a noisy concert staged by countless birds. Soon all the noise suddenly subsides and tranquility takes its reign.
Direct contact with villagers, either in the village or with the guides on tour, is always a great experience. While preparing food or playing cards with the guests, they know a lot of stories to tell (if not in English then in Lao and body language – it works and lots of laughter is guaranteed).
What types of partnerships or professional development would be most beneficial in spreading your innovation?
We would like to work more closely with organizations that are engaged in wildlife protection (WWF, WCS and others, 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.
Important is the cooperation with private tour operators. Provided they can support the principles of the project, they are welcome to sell the project and channel the incoming visitors, thus bringing the project closer to nature enthusiasts.