Q. What is the best way to see a rain forest?
A. Zip line.
I recently visited the remote northwest corner of the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos. Laos is Southeast Asia’s only landlocked country and with a GDP of USD 17 billion is the poorest. The lack of economic production is partly because of geography but also because of their nonchalant work mentality which some unknown French official immortalized by observing “the Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grown and the Lao listen.” With 75% of the population employed by some form of agriculture that is a lot of listening.
And that is a lot of burning.
Slash and burn is still a common agricultural technique used throughout Southeast Asia, this despite campaigns to educate farmers of its harmful side effects. Less public but equally devastating has been logging, in particular illegal logging done without any consideration of the future or impacts on the local environment. According an estimate by Conservation International human activity has reduced the Indo-Burma rainforest to between 15 and 30% and it is now listed as one of the most endangered forests in the world.
The complexity of why people use slash and burn and how to stop it goes far beyond the purpose of this post, but one innovative solution was the reason for my trip into Laos.
In the early part of 2000’s Jean-François Remaux, a former French professor, took a trip to this former Indo-China colony. During his travels he made a personal connection with the gibbon, an ape unique to Southeast Asia. After unsuccessfully attempting to gather financial support from different governments and international organizations to protect the gibbons and their environment Remaux sketched out a unique alternative – let the tourists pay for it.
In 2004 Animo was founded. Their mission was to “facilitate the sustainable and profitable conservation of the Bokeo Nature Reserve in conjunction with the indigenous inhabitants of the protected area.” Their solution: The Gibbon Experience.
Part adventure tourism and part eco tourism, the Gibbon Experience gives participants the opportunity to view the rain forest from 60 meters up. With nothing more than a harness, a safety line and a roller travelers make their way across the 30 km of zip lines inside the Bokeo Nature Reserve. And if flying through the jungle isn’t enough you also get to sleep in a tree house.
The trip as a whole was one of the most unique experiences I have ever had. Watching a lightning storm off in the distance as the sun set, and later that evening dealing with the fall out of heavy wind, rain and lighting while being in a tree house was, in hindsight, awesome. (At one point were were seriously zipping out into the middle of the night because we were rocking so much.) We were also fortunate to watch the illusive gibbons climb around in trees, even though it was a couple hundred meters away. Zipping 400 m across a valley into a four story tree house 60 meters above the ground was simply awesome.
The project is staffed predominately by people from the surrounding villages. When Animo and Remaux created The Gibbon Experience they were aware that the surrounding villages needed to buy into the project if it was to succeed in protecting the forest and animals. They also wanted to avoid just giving hand outs. Instead the company helped install the zip lines, construct the tree houses (you can read about how it is done here), and continues to oversee the monitoring and maintenance of both. Once that was completed the daily running of the project was given back to the people, and from what I saw they are doing a pretty good job.
By the way, the gibbon in the third photo is in the bottom left hand third.