More Mekong River views, this time concentrating on the life of local people along its banks rather than its use as a highway as shown in my previous post. All were taken between Luang Prabang and Chiang Kong.
The onset of our Wet season, bringing us the monsoon skies I posted here a week ago and reminding me of similar skies in Laos at the end of their Wet, brought back memories of my visit (outlined here) to that country six months ago. This post presents photographs of the Mekong, which dominates Lao geography and landscape, and the boats which serve its travellers. My next will do the same for life along its banks.
While I was in Laos last year I took a day trip from Luang Prabang to a nearby village where the locals were making paper. Their raw material was somewhat unusual: elephant poo.
Paper-making always begins with fibres which are stirred up in a slurry, spread out in a thin layer and dried. That’s about all there is to it, in fact, apart from controlling colour, thickness and surface finish. Vegetable fibre has been used ever since papermaking was invented in ancient China (details from Wikipedia. Papyrus, by the way, is not quite paper because it does not pass through the slurry stage – Wikipedia explains that here).
The first major step in the process is separating the cellulose fibres, which are all that is needed, from the rest of the plant. Industrial paper production does it via expensive mechanical or chemical pulping, but guess what herbivores can’t digest? Cellulose. That realisation led to a whole new way of looking at elephant poo and turned it from a problem into a resource.
When I visited the village I saw the latter stages of production, with cleaned fibres floating in tubs of water being ladled out onto silk-screen frames, put out to dry in the sun, and turned into finished products: tissue paper, cards and envelopes, sketch-books and so on.
Other small businesses in the village included silk weavers and wood carvers.
More: A magazine article (formatting is wonky but content is good), probably about this project which was not the village I visited but is nearby. Also, on Treehugger, a Sri Lankan project written up nicely and with useful further links.
While on holidays I was lucky enough to visit a bear sanctuary near Luang Prabang. I vaguely thought that the bears there would be quite small but I was wrong: adult males average 115kg and most of the animals on the centre were bigger and heavier than most people. The photos here are mine but the following description of their history and work comes from their website.
Wild bear populations across the globe are threatened with extinction, with Asiatic black bears and Malayan sun bears classified by the IUCN as Vulnerable.
Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre was established by Free The Bears Fund Inc. in 2003 after local authorities confiscated three bear cubs and asked for assistance to help look after them. The rescue centre has continued to care for these bears and also accepted further bears that have been confiscated by the Lao authorities. All of the bears at the centre are Asiatic Black Bears (Moon Bears) that were illegally captured from the wild as young cubs. It is likely that they were destined for use in the traditional medicine trade.
The Centre is situated within the beautiful Tat Kuang Si Park, a Provincial Protected Area [i.e. a National Park in Australian terms] approximately 30 Km from the UNESCO World Heritage listed city of Luang Prabang.
We are fortunate to be just minutes from one of Laos’ most famous waterfalls – a location which has helped us to become an extremely popular destination with both locals and international tourists. Visitors to the rescue centre are able to enjoy seeing one of Laos’ most endangered species and also learn about the threats to bears and how they can help to protect Laos’ precious wildlife. A program of extensions started in 2008, building viewing platforms for visitors and larger enclosures for the bears, and allowing the fund to provide care for further confiscated bears.
The centre is run by a dedicated team of staff who care for the bears on a daily basis. Our bears enjoy large forested enclosures, cool fresh water streams and pools (fed by the nearby waterfall) and, of course, lots of play and enrichment items to keep them fully occupied.
This post appeared almost simultaneously in Waves, the newsletter of Reef HQ Aquarium Volunteers Association. It is true that bears and aquariums don’t have a lot in common but there are still two strong connections: wildlife conservation, and the efforts of dedicated volunteers to address needs they perceive.
Sometimes it seems that a person is attracted to a particular project almost by accident – “my friend told me about it” or “I happened to see” – but voluntary work, from Mother Teresa in the Calcutta slums to the teenager helping out at an animal refuge, makes a profound difference to our world.