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The small land-locked country of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) lies ensconced at the geographical centre of mainland south-east Asia. It borders China, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, but lags far behind some of these countries economically and is still one of the poorest countries in Asia.
On the other hand, Laos is beginning to experience rapid development. The early stage of its economic growth means it still has the opportunity to save significantly large swathes of forest and rich biodiversity, which have already been squandered by its neighbours.
Ecologically, Laos is dominated by the mighty Mekong River to the west. It provides the largest water input of all the countries that feed into the Mekong River. The country’s watersheds are held together by forests, hence conservation of these habitats is crucial for the entire region. Remote tropical and sub-tropical mountain ecosystems rich in unique biodiversity dominate the north and east of the country, towards the China and Vietnam borders.
Fauna & Flora International’s (FFI) first involvement in Laos has been to support conservation of its rich diversity of gibbon species. The country is the most important stronghold for many species of gibbon.
FFI is a leader in the conservation of the western black crested gibbon in China and Vietnam. In Laos (the only other country with this species), FFI has been implementing activities to complement other ongoing gibbon conservation work at Nam Kan National Protected Area. This is the only site in Lao PDR known to have a viable population of this species. Recent FFI surveys have indicated that the population is larger than previously realised, but have also highlighted the serious threat from hunting.
This 150,000 hectare protected area of limestone mountains still appears to have a relatively large and viable population of the southern white-cheeked crested gibbon, which is listed as Endangered by the IUCN.
In 2011, FFI and the IUCN initiated activities for the protection of this species and other endemic wildlife using a community-based approach which includes social surveys, awareness-raising, participatory conservation planning and community-based patrols and monitoring.
Laos is extremely important for gibbon conservation. It is home to six different gibbon species, including four species of highly threatened crested gibbons. With relatively large areas of forest remaining compared to most of its neighbours, Laos is the best hope for the conservation of some of these gibbon species, as well as other endemic plants and animals.
Together with the government and partner NGOs, FFI helped to prepare a national gibbon conservation action plan for Lao PDR, which was endorsed by the Lao government in June 2011.