Saving Nam Poui: home to the Mlabri ethnic group and last stronghold for the conservation of Asian elephants and the white-handed gibbon

Asian Elephants (1)

Three decades ago, the Asian Elephant population of Nam Poui was thought to be about 350. Today is the number is estimated to be as low as 60-80.

In an effort to secure the most crucial biodiversity west of the Mekong River, Lao PDR sets in motion a 5-year collaborative plan to sustainably manage the country’s largest protected area

June 18, 2021

"Home to the world’s most charming rainforests, Laos possesses an exceptional biodiversity, further enriched by the presence of hundreds of species of mammals and birds. However, this rich diversity is now at risk, undermining the country’s efforts to eliminate poverty and sustainable economic opportunities for rural communities. Creating national protected areas as sanctuaries for endangered diversity is key. The EU is very proud to support this cause in Laos as part of our global Green Deal agenda."

H.E. EU Ambassador to Lao PDR Ina Marciulionyte

Tucked in Lao PDR’s western province of Xayabouri lies one of the world’s most ecologically and culturally rich landscapes. The national protected area (NPA) of Nam Poui harbours various endangered and threatened species and is home to ethnically diverse communities such as the little understood indigenous Mlabri “yellow leaf people” who depend on the forest for survival.

Over the last 30 years, Nam Poui, its ecosystem, and the communities who call it home have increasingly come under threat from development and habitat disturbances such as road construction, logging, harvesting of non-timber forest products, fishing and hunting. Further eco-challenges have emerged in the form of planned mining activities and the proposed construction of a hydropower facility, which could submerge significant portions of the area.

Asian elephants and white-handed gibbons, a population in decline

No creature has come under greater pressure from these cumulative impacts than the Asian elephant. Once known as the land of a million elephants – an epithet that is ingrained in its national identity – Lao PDR’s wild elephant has dwindled to 400-600. In Nam Poui, the numbers have dropped from 350 three decades ago to an estimated low of 60-80 today.

In addition to endangered Asian elephants, Nam Poui is the last hope for conserving the white-handed gibbon in Laos. Gibbons are often considered flagship species for conservation and used as an indicator for long-term monitoring as their presence indicates good forest health. Lao PDR is home to six gibbon species, of over half of which are critically endangered. Today, Nam Poui represents the only remaining protected habitat for white-handed gibbons in the country.

White-handed gibbon from Nam Poui. Photo courtesy of Phaivanh Phiapalath

"It is high time to take action for Asian elephant conservation in Lao PDR by making sure that the population of the Nam Poui NPA is well protected and ensuring all threats are reduced and any projects that would generate potentially major adverse impacts are prevented. The recovery of Asian elephant populations in the NPA can potentially occur both from population increases within Nam Poui itself, as well as by transboundary protected area collaboration with Thailand, which may allow elephants to restock Nam Poui by dispersal from Thailand."

Phaivanh Phiapalath, Lao PDR biodiversity expert

While the situation for gibbons continues to be rather bleak – a 2010 survey conducted in Nam Poui found only around seven gibbon clusters remaining in the wild – recent surveys in the area revealed a high proportion of young elephants. Thus, if threats to the mammals are removed, the population could recover quite quickly. Hopes are high that the decline of both these endangered wildlife species will be halted with the Lao PDR’s approval of its first 5-year Nam Poui NPA Collaborative Management Plan. 

On a mission to restore biodiversity

The importance of the Nam Poui Management Plan in rebuilding endangered populations cannot be underestimated. Long-term solutions will be implemented, including carving out areas to serve as habitats for elephants and promoting alternative livelihood activities for local communities, such as planting crops that are not fed on or destroyed by elephants, along with the establishment of funds to compensate for crop damage. The protection of the last remaining groups of white-handed gibbons is also a priority action under the 5-year plan. 

The national Department of Forestry developed the plan in close collaboration with the EU-funded Biodiversity Conservation and Management of Protected Areas in ASEAN (BCAMP) project, implemented by the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity with support from NIRAS. BCAMP was launched in 2017 and runs for two more years with the goal of tackling biodiversity loss on multiple fronts such as better management of heritage parks or training in the use of new methods to fight poaching. In addition to the development of the Nam Poui management plan, park personnel have been included in the project’s workshops – on protected areas and systems as well as management planning approaches – and have received equipment to support protection efforts.

Another critical aspect of the management plan is the emphasis it places on collaboration as a means to ensure protection of animals and their habitats. Local communities, even those who keep very much to themselves, are being recruited in the fight against poaching and encouraged to report incidents to the NPA authorities.

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The Mlabri yellow leaf people: guardians of Nam Poui

Referred to as “the most interesting and least understood people in Southeast Asia”, the Mlabri indigenous people live deep in the forest where their small community of between 30 and 100 share their habitat with Nam Poui’s dwindling elephant and gibbon population. Their yellow leaf moniker comes from the banana and palm leaf shelters they build – when the leaves turned yellow, they take it as a sign to move on.

The Nam Poui Management Plan sees the Mlabri tribe as a “guardian community” of the protected area with as much to lose from illicit activities and encroachment on the environment as the endangered wildlife that surrounds them. Over ten years ago, a gibbon survey team had a rare encounter with the Mlabri, who live in harmony with nature.

Members of the indigenous Mlabri tribe, Nam Poui. Photo courtesy of Phaivanh Phiapalath

“We have learned that this tribe likes to live in the deep forest where there is a pristine and quiet environment. They protect their forest and suppress forest fires, as well as sustainably using natural resources. For example, when they dig koi (a forest tuber and their staple source of food), they always leave the tip part of it for germination," said Phaivanh Phiapalath, the survey team leader.

In launching its 5-year collaborative plan, the Nam Poui NPA management team recognises the urgency of conservation needs and the exigency to manage natural resources more sustainability.  Working together with the BCAMP team and a variety of stakeholders, including local communities, it is harnessing all possible resources in the fight to save the most crucial biodiversity west of the Mekong River.

Tam Nguyen

Tam Nguyen

Project Manager

Helsinki, Finland

+358 9 83624231