Laos is covered by 20 National Protected Areas (NPAs) that covers roughly 14% of the country. The central part is covered by the biggest limestone forest of the region and is home to some unique endangered species such as the saola. Southern Laos hosts the huge mighty Mekong with thousands of islands as well as the temperate Boloven Plateau. If accessibility to some national parks is not obvious, there are many opportunities for visiting them through activities such as trekking, boating, kayaking, biking, bird watching, flora recognition, caving, and camping.
From Vientiane, the most accessible protected area offering a variety of ecotourism activities is Phou Khao Khouay, where you can trek, visit spectacular waterfalls and spend the night in an elephant observation tower on the edge of the park. In the provinces, visit Nam Ha in Luang Namtha for trekking, watch birds at the Pha Pho wetland in Champasak’s Xe Pian NPA, trek Dong Phou Vieng in Savannakhet for a chance to see the beautiful Douc Langur. If you are interested in caves, don’t miss the Phou Hin Poun NPA in central Khammouane Province. More activities are being developed in a number of other NPAs ; be sure to check with the staff for news on new ecotourism programs around the country.
Laos is home to over one hundred species of large mammals. Many of these are familiar Asian species such as the tiger, Asian elephant and gaur (a species of wild cattle). Lao also holds an impressive diversity of primates including five species of gibbons, five species of macaque and four species of leaf monkey including the incredibly beautiful Douc Langur.
Recent discoveries include the Saola, also found in Viet Nam, which is a strange and beautiful forest dwelling antelope-like creature, many small deer species known as muntjacs, a small striped rabbit and a completely new family of rodents known locally as the Kha-nyou that is closely related to porcupines.
In addition to mammals, Laos hosts over 165 species of amphibians and reptiles including such impressive species as Rock and Burmese pythons, Kong cobras and the large and noisy Tokay gecko (Gekko gecko) a formidable resident of many Lao houses.
Opportunities to view this incredible diversity of wildlife are steadily growing. A long history of market and subsistence hunting has depressed much wildlife population across the country. Do not eat or purchase wildlife and wildlife products. The increase in ecotourism and travellers’ interest in viewing wildlife now provides positive financial reasons for residents to conserve many of these species. Let people in Laos know that you want to see wildlife in its natural habitat.
With over 700 species recorded and new species being added to the country list almost monthly, Laos is one of the least known birding locations in the world.
The Northern Highlands of the country host numerous species associated with Northern Thailand and the North Eastern Himalayas. A huge diversity of babblers as well as Blyth’s kingfishers, Rufous-necked hornbill, Beautiful nuthatch, Short-tailed parrotbill and Yellow-vented warbler can be found in the forests of the north.
The Mekong Plain supports areas of dry deciduous forest inhabited by Rufous-winged buzzards, Black-headed woodpeckers and Small minivets.
The river itself is an important flyway for migratory shorebirds and waterfowl as well as localized sandbank species. The southern portion of the Mekong Plain along the Cambodian border is home to the incredibly rare White-shouldered and Giant ibis as well as small populations of White-rumped and Red-headed ducks. The most exciting discovery in the area has been the description of a new species, the Mekong wagtail.
Perhaps the best area for birding in the country is along the Annamite Range that borders Vietnam. Short-tailed Scimitar babbler, Yellow-billed nuthatch and the recently described Black-crowned barwing are all readily found. Slightly more widespread species include White-winged and Indochinese Green magpies as well as the shy and difficult to see Crested argus and Blue-naped pitta. Another one worthy to mention is the enigmatic Sooty babbler, unseen for decades it was ‘rediscovered’ in the 1990s in Central Laos.