Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos were the subject of our time in Southeast Asia. These three extremely different countries each have their own strengths and weaknesses in conservation.
In Thailand, we learned about the plight captive animals, used for tourism, and how captivity affects wild populations as well. The Elephant Nature Park rescues captive elephants and elephants used in the industries. Unlike most elephant parks in Asia, the “ENP” gives the animals the freedom to naturally live their lives. They can be social and they are free ranging in the huge sanctuary. We interacted with many of these elephants, including several that had stepped on mines. Considering their great power and size, Asian elephants are surprisingly gentle, a demonstration of their remarkable intelligence. Many wild elephants are caught in captivity or are used in industry. This trade, as well as poaching, depletes the elephant populations of Southeast Asia.
Laos, the most remote and rural country we visited, is otherworldly from anywhere else we have been. It has little development, aside from the massive dams the Chinese have created, and it takes days to move from one part of the country to another. In Laos, we took part in the Nam Nern Night Safari, which promotes conservation amongst the local community. The local people took us up the river in small boats with motors attached and showed us the splendors of the jungle. At night, the guides used a flashlight to point out several nocturnal species that hide during the day, like civet cats and sambar deer. It was refreshing to see the local people so passionate about showing tourists the animals they see on a daily basis. This innovative project has turned countless hunters into tour guides. Sadly all of Laos was not quite as positive. We visited many night markets and restaurants, many of which have endangered animals or their products for sale. These species included civets, macaques, tigers, snakes, and birds.
Cambodia, famous for lost temples and a recent genocide, is home to a massive waterbird colony, known as the Prek Toal. We visited the site with the Sam Veasna Center, founded by a pioneering conservationist that discovered many new species. This foundation protects Cambodia’s biodiversity hotspots and shows some of them to eco-tourists. The Prek Toal shelters breeding populations of large storks, cormorants, and ducks. Many of these populations are the largest in Asia. In Southeast Asia, a land of ups and downs in terms of conservation, we discovered many ways to invite the local communities to preserve species and the value of ecotourism.