IUCN - The communicator

The communicator

04 April 2011 | News story

Dr Phaivanh Phiapalath - the Lao Peoples' Democratic Republic

In a country like Laos, where rapid socio-economic development is driven by the exploitation of natural resources, and the human and financial resources to protect the environment are extremely scarce, nature conservation is not the highest priority. Phaivanh Phiapalath, IUCN's Senior Programme Officer specialized in protected areas management and wildlife in the Lao People's Democratic Republic, has found a way to put nature on top of many people’s agendas. His secret is 'friendly communication'.

Often described as Laos’ first primatologist, Phaivanh Phiapalath is strongly dedicated to the conservation of nature in his country. He is particularly passionate about endangered primate species, including gibbons and douc langurs.

To protect the species he is so strongly attached to, Phaivanh works with those who know them best: local communities.

In the Hin Namno National Protected Area - an area rich in stunning limestone mountains, situated in eastern Laos on the country’s border with Vietnam - Phaivanh studied the distribution, behaviour and threats of the red-shanked douc langur (Pygathix nemaneus). Water shortages and swarms of insects did not stop him from carrying out his research in the area, leading to some alarming findings: the biggest threat to douc langurs was coming from people! Although Phaivanh estimated that about 17,000 of douc langurs were living in the Hin Namno, he also found out that around 400 of them were being hunted each year. It became apparent that the trade of wildlife for Vietnamese markets was the greatest threat to langurs and other wildlife species along the border between Laos and Vietnam.

Phaivanh decided to take action before it was too late. Using douc langurs to help define a zone that should be fully protected, he played a key role in the development of the so-called ‘co-management approach’ in Hin Namno, which allowed local people living in and around the area to become actively involved in its management. This helped to create a shared vision of conservation among the community and included local people in conservation actions. The plan was approved by the Government of Laos in 2010, making it the first of its kind in the country. 

How was this possible? Phaivanh says that friendly communication and “building trust” with local people and officials of all ages, social and ethnic groups, are a vital part of working on conservation with local communities. Wherever he works, he makes a special effort to identify people who are interested in conservation, helping to form a network of like-minded people. He invites local hunters to join wildlife surveys and tries to convert them to conservationists.

"I never say that I know everything; it’s the local people that know their areas, forests and wildlife best," explains Phaivanh. "I try to understand their problems, analyse them and find solutions. I never tell the poor that by hunting they’re doing a bad thing, as I know very well that they do it to survive. But when I’m with them, I tell them that I can have any food with them except wildlife. Many of them want to understand why and this often makes them change their attitude."

A similar approach has also helped to promote conservation in other sites in Laos. Through IUCN’s Livelihoods and Landscape Strategy, Phaivanh used his expertise to introduce a co-management initiative for non-timber forest products in the Champassak Province, helping local people to form village groups that sustainably manage a valuable forest resource: the malva nut.

“Conservation in Laos can be sustained as long as Lao people are taking ownership”, says Phaivanh. “The success of conservation in this country rests with the next generation. This next generation of conservationists needs to be built and strengthened now, and their interests need to be better represented”. 

To make this happen, Phaivanh has helped to establish the Lao Wildlife Conservation Association (Lao WCA), which aims to share wildlife information and conservation messages with young conservationists. Phaivanh is also involved in developing an Action Plan for the conservation of gibbons in Lao PDR and other co-management plans for protected areas in the country.

Dr Phaivanh Phiapalath can be contacted at phaivanh.PHIAPALATH@iucn.org