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Motivating local communities to protect wildlife via direct payments from ecotourism

Completed initiative


Map of the 4,229 km2 Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area, Laos

Map of the 4,229 km2 Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area, Laos (Eshoo et al, 2018)

Ecotourism as a strategy for achieving biodiversity conservation often results in limited conservation impact relative to its investment and revenue return, and projects are often criticised for not providing sufficient evidence on how the strategy has reduced threats or improved the status of the biodiversity it purports to protect. Preliminary results from this project clearly show that where local communities directly benefit from ecotourism (as opposed to indirectly benefiting) illegal hunting of wildlife is reduced compared to areas without ecotourism enterprises.



The 4,229 km2  Nam Et-Phou Louey (NEPL) NPA is located in the northern highlands of Laos. At a global level, NEPL is an important representative of the Northern Indochina Subtropical Forests Ecoregion and one of the largest protected areas in the ecoregion with high biological diversity and many charismatic species.

The poaching and wildlife trade problem

Species affected Tiger Panthera tigris , Bears , Pangolins , Primates

Products in trade

Illegal hunting and trade was the principle threat contributing to wildlife decline in the NPA. This threat was driven by international demand for tiger bones, bears, pangolins, and primates with additional demand from urban markets in Laos for wild meat (e.g., ungulates and large rodents).

Overview of the problem

Evidence gathered from camera trap surveys, focus group discussions and law enforcement patrols indicated that the hunters were primarily from villages bordering the NPA with access to illegal weapons, including guns, explosives, and traps.

Of the 84 hunter groups caught by patrol teams in 2009, only five were from another village sector and one from a non-NPA village. Villagers hunting for large mammals deep in the forest were typically in groups, while people tending to upland rice fields and grazing livestock in satellite locations inside the forest hunted alone or in small pairs.

Buyers were normally influential villagers that acted as local middlemen, selling their products to other Lao traders from outside the province or foreign traders from Vietnam or China.

Houaphan Province, where the ecotourism site was located, was one of the poorest provinces in the country, with 41% of its population in poverty. The average annual household income for villages around the NEPL NPA was US$436-618 and the total expenditure per capita by the government and international development projects on public services in the province was US$38.

The anti-IWT initiative

The effectiveness of ecotourism as a strategy for achieving biodiversity conservation using an indirect payments approach, which is typical of alternative livelihood projects, has been identified as largely unsuccessful in demonstrating measurable conservation outcomes.

In Lao PDR (hereafter Laos), where illegal hunting and trade is driving wildlife decline, an indirect payments approach has been used by many ecotourism projects hoping to reduce this threat by alleviating poverty in villages surrounding national protected areas (NPAs). Thus far only one study has evaluated the impact of these ecotourism projects on wildlife conservation. The study found that the abundance of western black-cheeked crested gibbon (Nomascus concolor), the target species that the ecotourism project aimed to conserve, continued to decline due to illegal hunting and trade despite an increase in ecotourism income to communities in the ecotourism area. Most studies have shown similar results, i.e. despite the benefits from ecotourism - including socioeconomic benefits in the form of employment, education or community development for local groups involved in the illegal hunting - poaching continues. 

In lieu of these findings, many recommend an arrangement that would better link benefit sharing from tourism to compliance with hunting regulations to reduce illegal hunting, such as direct payments through explicit contracts in return for ecosystem services.

This initiative tests this: an ecotourism strategy designed to directly link the number and type of wildlife sighted by tourists with the amount of financial benefits received by beneficiaries (multiple villages and all families that have access to the ecotourism area where hunting is illegal) involved in an ecotourism operation with the ultimate goal of increasing wildlife abundance in the ecotourism area.

A variety of wildlife was targetted by using a tiered pricing system, with the purpose of protecting carnivores, ungulates, and primates that are declining due to illegal hunting and trade. Benefits were designed to increase incrementally according to the number of animals sighted by visitors in order to provide a greater return for increases in wildlife abundance.

The ecotourism site was located on the Nam Nern River in the NEPL NPA, which was identified as a feasible location for developing wildlife-based tourism because it provided a unique opportunity to see wildlife, which was relatively uncommon elsewhere in Laos. This was due in large part to an NPA law enforcement strategy implemented in 2005, and the river that allowed for stealthy boat travel to view wildlife visiting the river. The location was also identified as a viable tourism development area as it is situated at the crossroads of three major tourist destinations: the UNESCO World Heritage site of Luang Prabang Town, the UNESCO World Heritage-nominated Plain of Jars in Xieng Khouang Province, and the Pathet Lao Caves in Viengxay, Houaphanh Province and road to Hanoi.

In designing the ecotourism strategy, it was assumed that the NPA law enforcement strategy, which includes fines on individual hunters and wildlife traders for breaking NPA regulations, was not adequate to completely remove the threat of illegal hunting and trade - an assumption supported by law enforcement monitoring results.

The ecotourism model was developed following the completion of a business plan. A species-specific contract was developed with the local government and villages in the ecotourism area, which stated how benefits from ecotourism would be distributed and the conditions under which ecotourism would be managed. Benefits included a shared fund that established an explicit positive relationship between the fund and numbers of wildlife seen by tourists and a negative relationship between the fund and the number of infractions of NPA regulations committed by villagers. A mechanism was also developed that discouraged villagers working in tourism to illegally hunt or trade wildlife. 

The contract was negotiated with the nine villages, the district government, and the NPA. As every family in each village was assumed to have equal access to the TPZ, it was required that all families be consulted and agree to the benefit-sharing agreement. Finally, the contract was signed by all village chiefs, the district governor, and the head of the NPA to make it legally binding.

The benefit distribution contract was used to clearly define the expected conservation services and how benefits would be distributed, including how ecotourism income would be dispersed among the nine villages through a village development fund (VDF). 

Separate contracts were also signed with each individual of the tourism service groups, which stated that they would lose their position in the service group if they or anyone in their family (as registered in their official family registration book) were caught violating NPA regulations.

With the VDF, the villages were guaranteed a specified amount of money for every individual tourist going on the tour. In addition to this, for every listed species of wildlife seen by a group of tourists, an additional bonus would be paid into the VDF in order to create an explicit incentive for conservation.

In addition to including these positive incentives for conservation in the ecotourism strategy design, disincentives for breaking NPA regulations were also created by the benefit distribution contract. For example, if anyone from an ecotourism village was caught by NPA law enforcement teams violating regulations, the VDF of the respective villages of these individuals would be reduced for the year.

The strategy

Increasing incentives for wildlife stewardship

Further detail

Specifically direct payments to local villages based on contractual obligations (see below).

Improving education and awareness

Further detail

The project held ecotourism and conservation seminars in each village to raise awareness among villagers and all potential hunters about the need for protection of the natural attraction‹wildlife and their habitat‹in order to make the ecotourism operation a future success that would generate re-occurring income for their villages.

Has the initiative made a difference?

After four years (2010-2013), the initial results of this direct payments approach suggest that the ecotourism strategy was achieving the objectives of increasing village and NPA income from ecotourism and seemed to be contributing to a reduction in illegal hunting and an increase in wildlife sightings in the ecotourism area.

- the mean number of wildlife sightings per boat (with the exception of the tiger) increased by 63%, which generated a total of US$1,879 in bonus money for the VDF.

The results indicated a negative correlation between ecotourism income and hunting infractions and threats to wildlife slowed-down in the ecotourism sector of the protected area relative to non-tourism sectors (although trends in wildlife sightings continued to fluctuate).

The results illustrate how an ecotourism strategy using direct payments for wildlife sightings, along with a simple wildlife monitoring system can augment an enforcement strategy to reduce the threat of illegal hunting and trade.

However, given the relatively short duration of the study and small sample sizes, these results should be viewed with some caution. 


What works and why

The assumptions of this ecotourism strategy were that increased income from payments for wildlife sightings would reduce threats of illegal hunting and trade and ultimately increase wildlife sightings as an indicator of wildlife abundance.

- By adding additional individual and communal economic incentives through ecotourism poaching and IWT was reduced and wildlife populations increased.

- All potential hunters were given an economic stake in protecting wildlife by sharing the financial benefits of ecotourism, and these benefits were pegged to the actual numbers of wildlife viewed by tourists, creating a positive loop of increasing benefits and wildlife.

Factors for success

Coordinated and coherent sectoral policies/legislation (For example, land use planning, agricultural etc...)

Transparent and accountable distribution of benefits to local communities

Clear and tangible benefits to local communities from wildlife (These may be financial and/or non-financial)

Organisers, donors and partners

This study was conducted under an MoU between the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Department of Forestry with funding from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service Rhinoceros and Tiger Conservation Fund (No. 9-G031 RT-0883).

For further information contact People Not Poaching (