WILD ANIMALS, RARE SPECIES AND THE ILLEGAL WILDLIFE TRADE IN LAOS

WILD ANIMALS IN LAOS

Laos has some of the largest remaining tropical rainforests in Southeast Asia (See Separate Article on Forests and Environment). Animals found in Laos include Asian elephants, tigers, leopard, leopard cat, concolour gibbons, sub-nosed langur, barking deer, sambar (a type of deer), red panda, giant muntjac, racoon dog, pygmy slow loris, Malayan and Chinese pangolins, a number of macaques, six species of flying squirrel, 10 species of civet, serow (a type of mountain goat-antelope), goral (another type of goat-antelope), Javan mongoose, rare species of gibbons and langer, Malayan sun bear, Asiatic black bear and gaur. The discovery of the Saola Ox, a breed of deer-antelope, in Vietnam a few years ago caused a great sensation. This extremely rare animal inhabits the Eastern border regions of Laos. It is thought that these remote areas probably still hide other unknown species.

A survey of birds counted 700 species, including the green peafowl, tawny fish-owl, brown hornbill, Sarus crane and giant ibis. Lao supports over 165 species of amphibians and reptiles including such impressive species as rock and Burmese pythons, black jungle monitor lizards and the large and noisy Tokay Gecko (Gekko gecko) a formidable resident of many Lao houses. Laos is home to several species of gecko, including a giant one more than half a meter long. Poisonous snakes include the common cobra, king cobra, banded krait, Malayan viper, green viper and Russel’s pit viper.

In Southern Laos, near Khong Island, Irrawaddy dolphins inhabit the Mekong River. While many species of wildlife are shy and can rarely be seen, spectators will generally be able to spot the dolphins in Springtime when the water level of the Mekong is lowest. Lao also holds an impressive diversity of primates including five species of gibbon, five species of macaque and four species of leaf monkey including the incredibly beautiful Douc Langur.

Sometimes wildlife makes its presence known in the cities, Amanda Hesser wrote in the New York Times, “From my seat at an outdoor table at the Cafan Vat Sene I had a privileged view of the afternoon's civic unrest. The traffic on the main street of Luang Prabang, Laos's third-largest city (population 16,000 at its core), had come to a halt. Poised nose to nose in the avenue were a large dog and a bellicose lizard. Children gathered to watch. I clutched a glass of Lao beer as the dog growled and lunged and the lizard leapt at the dog's snout. When the dog finally began to get the upper hand, the lizard wisely high-tailed it into a bush. The traffic resumed its customary slow pace.” [Source: Amanda Hesser, New York Times, July 13, 2005]

Endangered animals found in Laos include the Asiatic black bear, Malayan sun bear, Asiatic jackal, Malayan tapir, clouded leopard, guar (a kind of wild cattle), banteng (a kind of wild cattle) and the red panda. Endangered concolor gibbons have had their numbers reduced by poaching and loss of habitat resulting from farming. They survive in isolated areas of Laos, Vietnam and China. A few Sumatra one-horned rhinos may survive in the Bolaven Plateau—where they once lived—but that is extremely unlikely. Reports of kouprey, a kind of wild cattle believed to be extinct elsewhere in Southeast Asia, were recorded in 1993.

There is new park between Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia

Elephants In Laos

In their heyday, elephants served as Laos’s trucks, taxis and battle tanks. Laos is communist-ruled today, but it used to be a kingdom that kept its independence by sending elephants as tribute to neighboring China and Vietnam.

Denis D. Gray of Associated Press wrote: “Once so famous for its herds that it was called Prathet Lane Xane, or Land of a Million Elephants, Laos is thought to have only 700 left in the wild. Domesticated elephants number about 570, a 20 percent drop over the last decade. [Source: Denis D. Gray, The Associated Press, March 21, 2008 <=>]

“Elephants in Laos are better off than in most of the 12 other nations that are home to the animals. The country has extensive forest cover and a sparse population. But like elsewhere, it's a race against time. Poachers, dam builders, loggers and farmers are taking a deadly toll on the endangered species. "The situation will become very dramatic in about 10 years if nothing changes," said Sebastien Duffillot, co-founder of France-based ElefantAsia. At their current rate of decline, Laos' wild elephants could be extinct within 50 years, he warns.” <=>

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Saving Laos’s Remaining Elephants

Denis D. Gray of Associated Press wrote: “Connie Speight has swayed on elephant-back through unforgiving jungle and has adopted nine of the high-maintenance beasts. At 83, the retired American teacher is back in this Southeast Asian country to help save what remains of the once mighty herds. "Lots of people in Asia tell you how elephants are their proud national heritage," Speight said. "But I tell them, 'It was your heritage, and what are you doing to bring it back?' Often precious little."[Source: Denis D. Gray, The Associated Press, March 21, 2008 <=>]

“Speight attended a recent elephant festival organized by Duffillot's conservation group "to pay tribute to the emblematic animal of Laos." One of several elephant conservation efforts under way, the three-day fair featured about 60 elephants. They demonstrated skills in logging, took part in Buddhist ceremonies and walked in stirring processions. Organizers said they hoped the annual festival, first held in 2007, might persuade elephant keepers to use their beasts in the fast-growing tourism business rather than logging. For many youngsters in the dusty, Mekong River town of Paklay, the morning offering of fruit and snacks to the pachyderms was the first time they had touched an elephant's trunk. <=>

“Speight hopes that others in Laos will get the chance as Mae Dok, one of nine jumbos she supports in Southeast Asia, travels the countryside as an "ambassador elephant" delivering books to schoolchildren. A female with a sunny disposition whose name translates as "Mrs. Flower," Mae Dok was rescued from a lifetime of logging labor and may be pregnant - something which sends Speight into rapture, given the dramatically declining numbers of breeding age females. ElefantAsia estimates that in 15 years there will only be 46 domesticated breeding cows under 20. <=>

“Speight, who taught natural history in Santa Barbara, Calif., has bought land for an elephant sanctuary in northern Thailand and radio collars to monitor calves released into the wild in Sri Lanka. "If Laos could become a model for what a very poor country can do, that would wave a flag in surrounding countries, some of which are useless," she said. <=>

“WWF and the U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society are active in Laos, which has welcomed numerous foreign aid groups since opening up its economy in the late 1980s. WCS co-director Arlyne Johnson said WCS is working with the government on plans to avoid human-elephant conflict, which occurs when dams, mines and other industrial development cut into the elephants' countryside and they roam into populated areas. <=>

New Animal Species in Vietnam and Laos

In recent years Laos has received international attention after the discovery of an incredible variety of species new to science. These recent discoveries include the Saola, a strange and beautiful forest dwelling antelope like creature, many small deer species known as muntjacs, a small striped rabbit and a completely new family of rodent known locally as the Kha-nyou that is closely related to porcupines.

In the early 1990s scientists discovered two large mammals—the saola, a deer-like animal with long swept back horns, and the giant muntjac, another deer-like mammal—that were new to science, a feat many though was next to impossible. Scientists also found a new species of squirrel and rabbit as well as several new fish and birds and a tortoise with a bright yellow shell. The Vietnamese wart pig, last seen in the wild by Westerners 100 years ago, was seen in the wild in 1995 in Laos. AFP reported: “Biologists have been stunned to find that Vietnam, shut off for decades by war and politics, has rainforests far more species-diverse than previously known. A one-horned rhinoceros thought extinct in mainland Asia was rediscovered and biologists found three new deer species, 63 vertebrates and 45 unknown fish, says the recently-published 'Vietnam: A Natural History'. Yet scientists are racing against time to catalogue the new animals before they are gone.”

John Balzar wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “In 1992, Western scientists cataloged the "discovery" of the planet's largest new mammal in more than half a century, a forest-dwelling ox named the saola. Not merely a new species, it represented an entirely unrecorded genus of life. As of the June publication of "Vietnam: A Natural History," scientists still had not sighted another free-ranging saola in the wild, although villagers sometimes kill an animal for meat. “Since then, researchers in Vietnam have identified three new species of deer and a striking striped rabbit — 63 new terrestrial vertebrates and 45 fish. An animal once thought extinct on the Asian mainland, the lesser one-horned rhinoceros, was rediscovered. A wild pig, a monkey, a pheasant and at least two other varieties of birds have been re-sighted almost a century after they were identified and then vanished from scientists' view. [Source: John Balzar, Los Angeles Times, July 16, 2006 <>]

“The era of grand biological discovery pretty much ended long ago across most of the globe. Not so for Vietnam, which continues its struggle to emerge from the darkness of war.This natural history, compiled by three scientists from the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at New York's American Museum of Natural History, is the latest chapter in the postwar development of one of the world's most remarkable, and mysteriously rich, landscapes. <>

“A comprehensive and knowingly illustrated scientific work that hints of more discoveries to come, the volume is engagingly readable. It deserves attention from those with a curiosity for contemporary biological exotica, as well as the increasing legions of tourists bound for the socialist republic, not just on account of rare and odd things that inhabit the east coast of Indochina but also because of the staggering variety of everyday flora and fauna. A nation about 20 percent smaller California with more than twice as many residents, Vietnam now faces a paradox of a more familiar kind. Even as new animals and plants are discovered, they are being jeopardized by roads, an expanding population, over-harvesting and pollution. Perhaps tourism, an important pillar of the government's economic growth plan, will forestall some of the damage — if visitors and residents alike truly comprehend the bounty before them.” <>

Saola

In May, 1992 the first large mammal discovered in over 50 years, was found in an area of unmapped tropical rain forest near the Laos border in Vietnam. The animal was dubbed the the saola, or Vu Quang ox after the region it was found. The last time such a large species was discovered was when a species of wild cattle was found in northern Cambodia in 1937. That species is probably now extinct.

It is believed that there about only 200 saola left. Some animals have been taken for food by tribesmen who hunt them with snare traps or dogs who pursue the animals to accessible riverbanks. Laotian hunters have used horns from the animals to make racks and ceremonial altars, not realizing the animal is endangered. At least six of these animals were found in 1994. Two adolescent ones were captured and taken to a botanical garden in Hanoi, where they died from an infection in their digestive tract. Vietnamese scientists made calls to zoologist around the for advise on how to help them.

The saola is also known as Vu Quang ox, spindlehorn and pseudoryx. It weighs about 100 kilograms and stands 80 to 90 centimeters at the shoulder. It was classified as a kind of wild cattle even though it has 20-inch-long backward-pointing horns similar to horns of a goat.

The saola was described by Barbara Basler in the New York Times as "a cowlike creature with a the glossy coat of a horse, the agility of a goat, and the long horns of an antelope. Know to local people as the "forest goat" or "spindle horn," DNA analysis of 11 Vu Quang ox specimens, determined that not only was it a new species, but a new genus as well. It was not considered a member of the bovid family, which included cattle, sheep, goats and antelopes.”

The sure-footed saola spends much of its time on high cliffs, where it feeds on grass. It has narrow, two-toed hooves with a concave area on the bottom that allows the animal to grip slippery surfaces, large facial glands, which secrete a scent to mark territory. Larger than a goat but smaller than a cow, it has a deep brown coat with black and white markings. Perhaps the most unusual thing about the animal is that seems to have more in common with species that roamed the earth between 5 and 10 million years ago than it does with modern ones.

Looking For the Saola

The Saola was discovered by a team of scientists led by biologist John MacKinnon in the Vu Quang Nature Reserve, a beautiful mountainous area of dense, unmapped tropical rain forest near the Laos border 170 miles southeast of Hanoi. The animal was described in 14th century Chinese journals but was thought to either have been mythical or extinct.

The first clues of the new animal were reports by village hunters of wild goats in the Vu Quang region and the discovery by Vietnamese zoologist Do Tuoc of skulls with long curved horns mounted on posts outside the home of a hunter. Japanese film crews roamed the region around Vu Quang offering anyone who produced the animal several thousand dollars.

A live saola specimen was captured in early 1996 in the Khammuan Province of Laos. Most of what scientist know about the animal has been determined from heads, horns and skins of the animal collected by local T'ai tribal hunters. Photographers hired by the World Wildlife Fund hoped to photograph it by setting up "photo traps” along forest tracks believed to be used by the animal.

Until 2013 none one had been able to photograph the saola. DNA evidence indicates the horns are similar in composition to ordinary cattle. Some believe that horns were artificially created and the species was a hoax.

Saving the Vu Quang Reserve

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p><Vu Quang Reserve has been described as "a dense, high-quality forest" filled with wild birds, cattle-like gaurs, forest pigs, sambar deer, gibbon, tigers, leopards, elephants and deer. How could it yield so many new species. "Part of the explanation," wrote Eugene Linden in Time magazine, "lies in the region's steep, ragged terrain and exceptionally wet, sweltering weather conditions...Incessant rains during the rainy season and dripping fogs during the dry season nurture a slick algae that adds a treacherous coating to rocks and other surfaces...The presence of what may be ancient species is evidence that Vu Qunag and its environs have been ecologically stable for millions of years."

Despite widespread hunting, Vu Quang remains incredible biologically diverse. "If mankind wants to preserve biodiversity," one conservationist told Time, "it makes sense to start in places like Vu Qunag, which have proved able to sustain biodiversity for along time." Vu Quang is also the home of a strange new species of fish, the quang khem, which resembles a carp. The yellow terrapin, once found in Vu Quang, is now extremely rare.

The park was named after a 19th century Vietnamese who revolted against the French. Established in 1986, it was later enlarged from 40,000 acres to 150,000 acres. There has been some logging, but most of the park embraces virgin rain forest. Vu Quang is connected with the 900,000 acre Nakai Nam Theun National Biodiversity Conservation Area in Laos. There are plans to also include 750,000 acres of reserves in the surrounding mountain forest in Vietnam.

Hunting presents the greatest threat to wildlife in VU Quang. Many of the tribesmen that live in area where the saola is found use guns and snares for hunting. A WWF official told Time, "Hunting only supplements the diets of local villagers, and it imposes little hardship to ask them to put it aside if that is necessary to protect unique natural treasures."

Saola Spotted for the First Time in 15 Years

In November 2013, Reuters reported: “The critically endangered saola has been photographed in Vietnam, the first sighting in 15 years, conservationists said. Known for its two parallel horns that can grow to 50 inches (1.27 meters) in length, the saola is so rare that simply seeing a picture of one gives hope to those who want to preserve the species, said Van Ngoc Thinh ofWorld Wildlife Fund. "When our team first looked at the photos, we couldn't believe our eyes," Van Ngoc, WWF-Vietnam's country director, said in a statement. "This is a breath-taking discovery and renews hope for the recovery of the species." [Source: Reuters, November 13, 2013 <+>]

“The automatic camera trap that snapped the saola was set by the wildlife group and the Vietnamese government's Forest Protection Department in the central Annamite mountains. The last confirmed record of a saola in the wild was in 1999, from camera trap photos taken in the Laotian province of Bolikhamxay. Villagers in Bolikhamxay captured a saola in 2010 but it subsequently died, the WWF said. In Vietnam, the last confirmed sighting was in 1998, said Dang Dinh Nguyen, deputy head of Quang Nam Forest Protection Department. <+>

“The greatest threat to saola are wire snares set by hunters to catch deer and civets - a small nocturnal mammal - native to the same forests and destined for the illegal wildlife trade, Van Ngoc said. To combat this trend, conservation groups recruited forest guards from local communities to remove the snares; since 2011, more than 30,000 snares have been removed from the area of critical saola habitat along theVietnam-Laos border. The guards have also destroyed more than 600 illegal hunters' camps, the statement said. <+>

“Discovered by Vietnam's agriculture ministry and World Wildlife Fund in 1992, the saola was the first large mammal new to science in more than 50 years. Twenty years on, the animal's elusive nature has prevented a precise population estimate, but at best, no more than a few hundred and possibly far fewer, survive in the forests along the Laos-Vietnam border. <+>

Giant Barking Deer and Other New Species Found in Vietnam

In 1994, the World Wildlife Fund confirmed the discovery of a new species of barking deer, or muntjac. About 50 percent larger than its cousins, the giant 100-pound muntjac was discovered by Western scientists in Nghe Tihn Province in Vu Qunag nature preserve, the same place where saola was discovered. The new species is distinguished from other muntjacs by its long, curving canine teeth, and large head and antlers. A live male muntjac deer was found in captivity in Laos. Blood samples were taken from it.

Unbelievably a third species of large mammal was discovered in Vu Quang—the quang khem, known to locals as the slow running deer and some scientist as Chihn's deer. While looking through bones samples in the Hanoi Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources, MacKinnon found a strange set of antlers in a box that may belong to yet another species.

In March 2003, Alex Kirby of BBC News wrote: “Earlier fieldwork by BirdLife to identify Vietnam's key conservation sites led to the discovery of three species of bird new to science - the black-crowned barwing, and the golden-winged and chestnut-eared laughing thrushes. The country is also home to an extremely small population of highly endangered rhinos. New mammal species found in recent years in south-east Asia include the world's smallest deer, in Burma, and a striped rabbit in the mountains straddling the border between Laos and Vietnam. In the last few years a forest pig have also been found in the region. [Source: Alex Kirby, BBC News, March 13, 2003]

Birds in Laos

With over 700 species recorded to date and new species being added to the country list almost monthly, Laos is one of the most exciting and least known birding locations in the world. In recent years as the country has embraced ecotourism the opportunities are expanding rapidly for visitors to see a variety of beautiful and rare species. [Source: Sabaidee Laos, Laos' official tourism website |+|]

The Northern Highlands of the country hold numerous species associated with Northern Thailand and the North Eastern Himalayas. A huge diversity of babblers as well as Blyth’s Kongfisher, Rufous-necked Hornbill, Beautiful Nuthatch, Short-tailed Parrotbill and Yellow-vented Warbler can be found in the forests of the north. The Mekong Plain supports areas of dry deciduous forest inhabited by Rufous-winged Buzzards, Black-headed Woodpeckers and Small Minivets. Ban Sivilai is a community owned and operated bird conservation zone in this area. |+|

The Mekong it self provides an important flyway for migratory shorebirds and waterfowl as well as localized sandbank species such as Small Pratincole, River Lapwing, Great Thick-knee and River Tern. The southern portion of the Mekong Plain along the Cambodian border is home to the incredibly rare White-shouldered and Giant ibis as well as small populations of White-rumped and Red-headed vultures, Lesser Adjutants, Sarus Cranes and White-winged Ducks. The most exciting discovery in the area in recent years has been the description of a new species to science, the Mekong Wagtail. This species was found, within the past decade, to live on sandbanks in the Mekong and a few of its tributaries in southern Lao and Cambodia. |+|

Perhaps the most exciting area for birding in the country is along the Annamite Range that marks the border with Vietnam. In recent years many species once though to be found only in Vietnam have been discovered in Lao. Species such as Short-tailed Scimitar Babbler, Yellow-billed Nuthatch and the recently described Black-crowned Barwing are all readily found. Slightly more widespread species include White-winged and Indochinese Green Magpies as well as the shy and difficult to see Crested Argus and Blue-naped Pitta. |+|

Another area worthy of mention is the impressive strip of karst limestone that divides the Mekong Plain from the Annamite Range in central Laos. This beautiful landscape is home to the enigmatic Sooty Babbler. Despite being locally common this species went unseen for decades until being “rediscovered” in the 1990s. |+|

River Dolphins in Laos

In Southern Laos, near Khong Island, Irrawaddy dolphins inhabit the Mekong River. While many species of wildlife are shy and can rarely be seen, spectators will generally be able to spot the dolphins in Springtime when the water level of the Mekong is lowest.

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Giant Red Centipede - Venomous Predators

A longtime Laos resident posted this on J&C Expat Services: “I’ve had them all in my garden: snakes, spiders, scorpions and other creepy crawleys… but recently, after 11 years in Laos, I came face to face with a new and truly scary species: the Giant Red Centipede (Scolopendra subspinipes subspinipes). When I saw it crawling around I was totally dismayed that such a creature might be living in my yard…. and actually I noticed it under my dining table (inside the house) while having dinner ! Yes, these guys are predators and are highly venomous … this one was probably looking for a big dinner himself, smile. [Source:J&C Expat Services, April 29, 2013]

Giant red centipedes are enormous, extremely fast and can pack a serious punch when it comes to biting. They can grow up to 30cm (12 inches) in length and they are wider than your thumb. If you are unsure how to tell the difference between a millipede and a centipede, take a closer look. Centipedes have one pair of legs per segment while millipedes have two pairs.

A bite from one of these red centipedes can be life-threatening to a small child or if you have a bee-sting allergy. Upon asking a Lao friend if these could kill, he responded with: “The chances are that they won’t kill you, but if you are bitten by a big one, the pain is enough for you to wish that it did kill you.” While the Giant Red Centipede is considered to be a “good” creature to have around because it does hunt and eat large prey, I do not consider anything that is venomous to be welcome at my house. Especially if it is an aggressive creature which this centipede is known to be.

Scientists Find a Rodent—in Laos—Thought to Be Extinct 11 Million Years Ago

In March 2006, scientists announced that a rodent discovered in Laos in 2005 may actually be a survivor of a group believed to have been extinct for 11 million years. Known as Diatomyidae, scientists have nicknamed it the Laotian rock rat. The creature is not really a rat but a member of a rodent family once known only from fossils. Xinhua reported: “The squirrel-like animal, called Laonastes aenigmamus, was interpreted as the sole member of a new family, Laonastidae, when scientists first witnessed its skeleton in 2005. It looks apparently different from other living rodents. [Source: Xinhua, March 11, 2006 **]

“But now, a team of U.S., French and Chinese researchers said it belongs to the family of Diatomyidae, an extinct early rodent that lived from early Oligocene to late Miocene in Asia. By comparing the similarities of teeth, mandible, dentition, vertebrae and head between the Lao rodent and the Diatomyidae fossil, researchers concluded that the squirrel-like animal should be a direct descendant of the Diatomyidae found in Shandong Province, China. **

“The team led by Mary Dawson at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History published its findings in the March 10 issue of the journal Science. Chuan-kui Li, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is also a member of the team. "Our phylogenetic analysis of morphological data from various living and extinct rodents identifies Laonastes as a member of Diatomyidae, being more closely related to Diatomys (found in Shandong)," the researchers wrote in the Science paper. "We therefore synonymize Laonastidae with Diatomyidae." **

“The discovery of the living diatomyid rodent Laonastes offers a rare case of the so-called "Lazarus effect," which refers to the re-appearance of a species after a lengthy blank in the fossil record, the researchers said. "Uniquely among placental mammals, Laonastes pertains to a clade (Diatomyidae) that was formerly believed to have been extinct for more than 11 million years," they wrote in the paper. "Diatomyids join tree shrews, flying lemurs, and tarsiers as examples of ancient and formerly widerranging mammalian taxa that are currently living with relictual distributions in southeast Asia." **

“Such a phenomenon shows that Southeast Asia's prehistoric "zoo" can offer invaluable insights regarding past and present biodiversity. "If it can be preserved, the Paleogene zoo that survives today in southeast Asia can offer invaluable insights regarding past and present biodiversity," the scientists said. "Efforts to conserve Laonastes, the sole survivor of a morphologically distinctive family of rodents with deep evolutionary roots in Asia, should be given the highest priority," they wrote. **

First Photographs of Rodent Thought to Be Extinct 11 Million Years Ago

In June 2006, Associated Press reported: The first pictures showing a live specimen of a rodent species once thought to have been extinct for 11 million years have been taken by a retired Florida State University professor and a Thai wildlife biologist. They took video and still photographs of the "living fossil," which looks like a small squirrel or tree shrew, in May during an expedition to central Laos near the Thai border. The pictures show a docile, squirrel-sized animal with dark dense fur and a long tail but not as bushy as a squirrel's. It also shows that the creature waddles like a duck with its hind feet splayed out at an angle — ideal for climbing rocks. "I hope these pictures will help in some way to prevent the loss of this marvelous animal," said David Redfield, a science education professor emeritus. [Source: AP, June 14, 2006 ////]

“He and Uthai Treesucon, a bird-watching colleague, befriended hunters who captured a live rock rat after four failed attempts. They returned the animal, which the locals call kha-nyou, to its rocky home after photographing it. The long-whiskered rodent was branded as a new species last year when biologists first examined dead specimens they found being sold at meat markets. But they had never seen a live animal until Redfield and Treesucon photographed it. ////

"These images are extremely important scientifically, showing as they do an animal (with) such markedly distinctive anatomical and functional attributes," said Mary Dawson, curator emeritus of vertebrate paleontology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. Dawson and colleagues in France and China first reported the rock rat's true identity in the March 10 edition of the journal Science after they compared the bones of present-day specimens with fossils found in Asia. ////

Hunting and Eating Wild Animals and the Illegal Animal Trade in Laos

A long history of market and subsistence hunting has depressed many wildlife populations across the country. Many wildlife species are threatened by illegal hunting and the illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife products. The Lao government takes these offenses very seriously and ask that you refrain from purchasing wildlife and wildlife products. The increase in ecotourism and traveler’s interest in viewing wildlife now provides positive financial reinforcement for residents to conserve many of these species.

Laotians are very fond of eating wild animals. People stand by the side of the road with dead civets and monkeys and sell them to relatively rich Laotians who travel by on the long-distance buses. By some estimates more Laotians get more protein from wild animals than they do from domesticated ones.

Animal cruelty is also a common sight in Laos. In markets to can see frogs with their legs sewn together to keep them from hopping away, river turtles strung up by ropes run through their shells, and all variety of animals hog toed around their feet and hung upside down. The main reason for this is that Laotians like their meat fresh and many lack refrigerators. In many cases animals are kept live and killed right before they are prepared. Many are squeamish about doing their own slaughtering.

On his experience in Laos during an investigation of the rhino horn trade, Karl Ammann wrote in Natural History magazine, “A trader in the jewelry market in Vientiane, Laos, has on offer what is reputedly an African rhino horn. The protrusions at the base of the horn are normally associated with Asian examples; most likely this is a fake modeled by someone unfamiliar with genuine African horn.” [Source: Karl Ammann, Natural History magazine, September/ October 2012 ***]

Poaching in Laos

Many rainforests in Southeast Asia are empty shells: full of large trees and abundant plant life but short off large mammals, many of which have been killed snares. Poachers use neck snares that choke animal to death when it struggles to escape; spring snares that lift the animal in the air and hold it upside down; leg snares that simply held on to the animal leg until it starves to death; jaw traps that clamped down to the bone; falling weigh traps that crush skulls; and bamboo and wooden spikes traps that skewer prey; and traplines set up on heavily used animal trails.

Describing wall of death trapline system in Laos's largest protected forest, conservationist Alan Rabinowitz wrote in Natural History magazine, "The 'wall' I had walked into...was an extended trapline made of sticks and small trees, no more than four feet high, that snakes its way across the valley and up the nearest hillside...I reached an opening that was partly blocked by the skeleton of a barking deer."

"At regular intervals along the walls," Rabinowitz wrote, "I discovered more openings, each with a snare hidden beneath the forest litter. Some openings were large enough for deer, bears and tigers, while other were small and low to the ground, just right for catching civets, small cats and ground-dwelling birds...Later I learned that most of the larger animals in the valley, such as deer, bears and wild pigs, had ben wiped out by this "wall of death" during the previous dry season."

In the old days animals were hunted primarily for food and hunters were interested in maintaining the population for food supplies the future. But these days many animals are killed to supply animals for the Asian animal parts medicine market. Hunters now make lots of money, in many cases selling parts that were nothing to them in the past. Discovery of a New Species of Salamander in Laos

On the discovery of a new salamander in Laos (the Lao newt, Laotriton laoensis), Bryan Stuart told the writer Laurel Neme: “When I started working in Laos in the late 1990s, there were no known species of salamanders from the country. Salamanders are essentially a temperate group of animals, and they just marginally get into the northern parts of Southeast Asia. You find salamanders in northern Burma, northern Thailand, northern Vietnam, and southern China. We expected that they occurred in northern Laos, but none had been previously documented in that country. [Source: Laurel Neme, mongabay.com, December 21, 2011, Dr. Laurel A. Neme is the author of “Animal Investigators: How the World's First Wildlife Forensics Lab is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species” *-*]

“Then, in 1999, one of my Lao colleagues found the first examples of a salamander up in the northern part of the country. The actual discovery was rather unusual. He had gone home to a rural part of northern Laos for a wedding, and when he returned to the capital city, he brought back with him a few examples of a salamander that had been put into the local alcohol for medicinal purposes. The idea was you put this animal that has very toxic skin secretions into the alcohol, and then you drink the alcohol at a party, such as this wedding, and there's some perceived health benefits from doing so. In any case, it is really this sort of unusual circumstance where his attendance at this wedding resulted in bringing these salamanders to my attention. *-*

The salamanders “are a remarkable species. They resemble in their morphology no other known salamander. They are large, have very warty skin, and are brightly colored on their back and belly. Their back has these almost yellowish stripes, and their belly has these bright orange spots....Alcohol preservation does over time dilute the colors; the colors do leach out of the specimen. But these were freshly collected, I think, and the colors were still apparent for these animals that had been preserved for medicinal consumption. They were immediately recognizable as something different. Their skin texture, their size, and the coloration were just totally unique. *-*

“Unfortunately, the area where they came from, at the time, was a very sensitive area to go to in Laos. There were some security concerns there. It took some time but finally things calmed down and we had a very, very brief opportunity for us to go into that area to find the species in the wild, in a stream. As a result of that work, we were able to describe this thing a few years later in 2002, in a formal description that came out in a scientific journal called “the Journal of Herpetology.” In that journal we named it a new species and we gave it the scientific name “laoensis” (Laotriton laoensis), which means “found in Laos.” The reason [for that name] was that we believed at the time that the species occurred only in Laos, and therefore we thought it was an appropriate name. *-*

Discovery of the Laotian Newt Spurs Illegal Trade of the Animal

Then, Bryan Stuart told Laurel Neme: “Something unusual happened. We published that description, and then I set out on the business of working on other projects. What happened then was something very unexpected. Because this species of salamander was very, very poorly known - it was essentially known only from the two localities that were presented in its original description, and just based on very, very few animals - and it was such a large and colorful and warty animal that was so unusual, a demand was created by people who collect amphibians and reptiles for the pet trade. [Source: Laurel Neme, mongabay.com, December 21, 2011, Dr. Laurel A. Neme is also the author of “Animal Investigators: How the World's First Wildlife Forensics Lab is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species” *-*]

“There is a demand to have rare species in private hobbyist collections. What I never anticipated would happen is that commercial collectors used the scientific description of this species, used the actual scientific journal as a sort of road map, for how to go and find it and commercially exploit it for profit. *-*

“What happened was, both almost simultaneously, some commercial collectors from Germany and commercial collectors from Japan converged on the small geographic area in Laos where it occurred and, illegally, without permission, started collecting these animals and paying local people to collect them. Ultimately, very large numbers of these animals were illegally taken out of Laos, and sold for a very high value in Japan and Europe. The price varies, but essentially local people were paid approximately ten to twenty U.S. cents per individual [salamander], and then they're selling back in Europe or Japan for the equivalent of over 200 Euros a piece; so, a very striking price difference. *-*

“But it became a real worry because the salamander was only known from these two little streams, and commercial collectors had converged on those two small areas where the species was known to commercially exploit it for profit. There was some real worry that in fact this species might be threatened with extinction from its practice. *-*

“What's unfortunate is the newt occurs not only in a small geographic area but, within that small geographic area, it occurs only in within certain streams, at the very high elevation portions of those streams. [Plus,] it's a species that you can see very easily [both] during the day in these small stream pools and also at night. They tend not to be shy because they have very toxic skin secretions. They're very comfortable walking about the bottoms of these stream pools during the day and that makes them very readily harvested by people. *-*

“In response to these demands that were set up by foreign collectors, the animal can be collected in very high numbers, very quickly. For example, villagers would often report to us selling this very rare, locally endemic Lao newt to visiting traders not by the number of individual salamanders, but by the kilogram-representing enormous numbers of these salamanders. It's really quite tragic what happened. *-*

Efforts to Save the Laotian Newt

On his response to quickly-arising trade in Laotian newts,Bryan Stuart told Laurel Neme: “I did two things, almost simultaneously. The first was I teamed up with two other herpetologists who had very similar things happen to them and we published a letter to the editor in the journal of Science. During the course of their work in doing biodiversity science, in describing species, so that ultimately these species can be recognized and conserved, they had the same thing happen where, unexpectedly, commercial collectors used those descriptions to exploit the species for commercial profit, because these were rare, newly known species. [Source: Laurel Neme, mongabay.com, December 21, 2011, Dr. Laurel A. Neme is also the author of “Animal Investigators: How the World's First Wildlife Forensics Lab is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species” *-*]

“So, we wrote this letter to the editor of the journal of Science asking the community the questions: What it is that we need to do as taxonomists, as people who discover and describe species? How do we continue to do that work with the intended good of having these things recognized so that they can be conserved without inadvertently subjecting these populations to commercial exploitation, and eventually extirpation or even extinction?” *-*

“At the same time, it was very clear to me that we needed more information on the status of this newt in Laos. By this time, I had started working with my colleagues at the National University of Laos, in this cooperative program with the Wildlife Conservation Society, and it was very obvious to me that this species of newt is known only from Laos. [I thought to myself] why should it be that I am the world's expert on this species when, in fact, its entire known range occurs within the country of Laos. Why not have a Lao person be the world's expert on that species? So, I recruited a student who was interested in taking on the project. Her name was Somphouthone Phimmachak, and she was one of the first students to enter the new Masters of Science program at the National University of Laos. Her background was in fisheries science, and she really knew very little about amphibians when she and I started working together. But she turned out to be extremely competent, extremely bright, and very quickly amassed tremendous information on amphibians of her country, especially salamanders. She took on the Lao newt to be the focal species for her Master's thesis. Her thesis, which she finished in 2010, became the first Masters of Science degree ever awarded from her country, and she is one of Laos' first national herpetologists. *-*

“In the course of her thesis work she documented the approximate extent of the geographic range of this Lao newt. She confirmed that this species occurs only in very high elevation, in the headwaters of streams, in a very small geographic area in northern Laos, an area that is essentially called the Xiangkhoang Plateau. So, she confirmed our suspicion that, indeed, it occurs not only just within Laos but within a very small area in Laos. *-*

“She learned that local people have historically for a very, very long time collected the animals in very small numbers for in some cases food, in other cases medicinal purposes, such as the wedding alcohol example I gave earlier, but that there was no real significant commercial trade in the species, until just a few years ago when foreign commercial collectors for the pet trade visited Laos and set up these trade networks to collect it, illegally export it, and sell it in Japan and the West for profit for the pet trade. And since those activities started, there is now a very large network for the species, and it is very heavily harvested. *-*

Happy Ending to the Laotian Newt Story

When asked if the was a happy end to the Laotian story and if the newts were still being collected, Bryan Stuart told Laurel Neme: “There's sort of a happy end to the story. As a result of Somphouthone Phimmachak's thesis work on documenting the distribution, the natural history, and the conservation of the species, her efforts led to the Lao newt being formally listed in 2008 as a Nationally Protected Species in Laos. That status, called a Category 1 species, now makes it illegal to conduct any commercial trade in the species. So, thanks to her efforts, that species is now, at least by law, protected from those activities. [Source: Laurel Neme, mongabay.com, December 21, 2011 *-*]

This [scientific species] description has taken me to places where I never expected it would. What started out as this very straightforward species description, then became quite a shocking tale of me inadvertently, unexpectedly, subjecting the species to extinction because of demand by people who were motivated by greed and profit. Then, ultimately, getting the Lao on board with it, and passing this ownership of the project to them, and helping a Lao biologist become the world's expert in a species that is known only from their country. Then they, in turn, push forward the protection of the species in their country. That, I think, is the way I would hope to always work in the future: working very carefully with local scientists and students, trying to understand the biodiversity collaboratively, and ultimately making sure that the responsibility of what to do about that biodiversity really falls on my in-country partners. This example of the Lao newt shows that ultimately, in terms of the conservation of these species, that kind of collaborative activity is really critical.

Later “educational posters on the Lao newt were distributed in villages in Laos within the range of the species. The poster provides information on the uniqueness of the species, its conservation status, and information on its protected status by Lao law.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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