Nam Ghong Provincial Protected Area, Laos: terra incognita!

ImageG This blog has been established for the purpose of drawing some attention to what is an almost completely unknown “protected area” in Southern Laos: Nam Ghong (Kong) Provincial Protected Area (NGPPA) in the extreme south of Laos in Attapeu province in Phouvong District. There are no conservation NGOs working in there, no active ecotourism programs, nothing. The area is completely unstudied and we have no idea what type of wildlife is still living there. NGPPA is 100,000 hectares and it borders Cambodia’s 325,000 hectare Virachey National Park. Information on NGPPA is scarce, to put it mildly. I mentioned the area in a recent interview that I did with Mongabay.com, and you can find it footnoted in a handful of scientific articles that mention that certain species ought to be found there. But what is really down there? Nobody knows for sure.

The sharp pointed mountain you see in the distance is Halang Mountain, located in NGPPA

The sharp pointed mountain you see in the distance is Halang Mountain, located in NGPPA

I will tell you what I know: there is a “spirit mountain” massif called Haling-Halang by the Brao, Kreung and Kavet people who live in the buffer zone of Cambodia’s Virachey National Park (VNP) north of the Sesan River.  In fact, Haling is in Cambodia (you can see part of it as the dark mountain in the shadows on the right in the photo above) and Halang is in NGPPA (Halang is the sharp mountain rising up in the distance above). I did my doctoral research on Animism and Bio-regionalism among the highlanders of Ratanakiri province, including those in VNP buffer zone, and the idea that a spirit mountain massif spans these two protected areas located in different nations fascinates me to no end. In fact, I wrote a book about my research and trekking adventures in Ratanakiri and VNP, titled Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor (the Taipei Times wrote a review of the book, which you can read here).

Inside NGPPA from above using Google Earth. To the right of the yellow line is Virachey in Cambodia, to the left is NGPPA. It is a totally wild, jungle-covered, mountainous, and highly remote region

Inside NGPPA from above using Google Earth. To the right of the yellow line is Virachey in Cambodia, to the left is NGPPA. It is a totally wild, jungle-covered, mountainous, and highly remote region

In fact, nearly all of the high peaks which serve as the border between Cambodia and Laos in this region are considered sacred by Cambodia’s indigenous people. Some of the other mountains are: Kreung Yeum and Der Mom to the east of Haling, and Haling Bie and Pra-Tvar in the Yak Yeuk Grasslands area of VNP. What else do we know? Well, we can see both from the Google Earth images and from the photo that I took up above that the area is heavily forested. In fact, the spirit mountains are covered with evergreen rain forest. Undoubtedly there are rivers and probably some spectacular waterfalls in NGPPA. NGPPA would naturally share much of the same fauna and flora as VNP does. The conservation NGO that I co-founded, Habitat ID, set up camera-traps deep inside VNP near the NGPPA border (we were within 400 meters are one point). You can have a look at some of the results here.

this Clouded leopard walked by one of our camera-traps that was set up just 400 meters from NGPPA. There can be no doubt that this beautiful species occurs in NGPPA as well

this Clouded leopard walked by one of our camera-traps that was set up just 400 meters from NGPPA. There can be no doubt that this beautiful species occurs in NGPPA as well

Some of the animals that we photographed with our remote cameras (and which are very likely to occur in NGPPA as well) were: clouded leopard, leopard cat, fishing cat, Asian Black Bear, Malayan sun bear, gaur, Chinese serow, yellow-throated marten, and many more. Elephants are said to cross the international border, and I have seen elephant tracks in both the Haling Mountain and Yak Yeuk Grasslands areas. One of our Brao guides said he saw an elephant walking down Haling Mountain heading into NGPPA last year. So elephants are almost surely living there. What else? We are hoping to find tigers in our VNP camera traps, and any tigers living in the border mountains certainly cross back and forth over the border. In fact, the NGPPA-VNP border has never been scientifically studied and it could be the last place in both countries where the Indochinese tiger is still found. The spirit mountains of the VNP-NGPPA border region could also hide the very last Javan rhinoceros, Kouprey, and Siamese crocodile (a Siamese croc was captured in the O Lai Lai River in Voen Sai district of Ratanakiri just downriver from VNP, and rangers say there is a Siamese croc pool up near the headwaters of the O Lai Lai near the Lao border) -if these species are not already (locally) extinct (Siamese croc excepted).  

Sun bear are almost certainly found just over the border in NKPPA

Sun bear are almost certainly found just over the border in NGPPA

Finally, there is the remote possibility that the highly cryptic “wild man of the Annamite Cordillera”, known as the Tek-Tek to the Brao and Kavet people of the VNP buffer zone, still haunts the spirit mountains of the border. This “Annamite Mountain Yeti” is goes by the name of briau in Laos and batutut in Vietnam (and by the same name in Borneo). What other surprises and possibilities does this mysterious area hold? Habitat ID would like to deploy cameras in NGPPA to find out.

A map showing the protected areas network in the region. This is one of the few maps that show NGPPA. I think Conservation International made this map.

A map showing the protected areas network in the region. This is one of the few maps that show NGPPA. I think Conservation International made this map.

We also know that Southern Laos was heavily bombed during the war between the USA and the North Vietnamese. The southern provinces of Laos comprise one of the most (the most) heavily bombed section of the planet. A friend who spent 10 days birding in Xe Xap National Protected Area  (located to the northeast of NGPPA in Salavan and Sekong provinces) reports that American bombing entirely wiped out the elephant population there.  So what about in Attapeu? Have a look at the map below, with red areas showing were bombs were dropped and possible Unexploded Ordnance (UXOs) may still be buried:

contaminationmap

You can find more info by following this link: http://www.nra.gov.la/images/contaminationmap.jpg

But this map offers some hope for NGPPA. Look carefully and you’ll find that only a small number of bombs appear to have been dropped inside of NGPPA itself. In fact, with the bombing as intense and horrific as it was, is it possible that animals fled other areas of Attapeu for the safety of what is now NGPPA and then on into VNP? This seems quite possible to me. Perhaps the sacred mountain chain that separates NGPPA and VNP really has spiritual powers after all. Is there a biological “lost world” waiting to be discovered in NGPPA?

We also know that the mountains of NGPPA are known as the Kavang Mountains

We also know that the mountains of NGPPA are known as the Kavang Mountains

Another map showing the area without naming NGPPA

Another map showing the area without naming NGPPA

 

UPDATE

I’ve learned that some Brao people in the Phouvong district of Attapeu province know about the Haling-Halang massif and that they also consider it a spirit mountain. I’ve also learned that the Asia Development Bank (ADB) wants to have NGPPA be a core area of one of its “biodiversity corridors” for the area and that is fantastic news! See the map below:

Biodiversity corridors in Laos in red, the lowest one shows NGPPA

Biodiversity corridors in Laos in red, the lowest one shows NGPPA

I will end for now (check back for updates) by starting a list of Web sites and documents in which NGPPA is at least mentioned: Birdlife International

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