The Mekong River above Vientiane, extending upstream to Luang Prabang, is one of the least-studied sections of the entire Mekong mainstream. No detailed bird or other fauna surveys have been conducted in most of this stretch of the river, which is considered a critical habitat, migration and breeding corridor for numerous species of conservation and economic significance.
Part of the area is globally recognized as an ‘Important Bird Area’ (IBA) and may support at least 15 other priority species, including mammals such as Smooth-coated Otter and Fishing Cat, birds such as Masked Finfoot, Greater Adjutant, Lesser Adjutant, and White-shouldered Ibis, and reptiles including Asiatic Softshell Turtle and Asiatic Giant Softshell Turtle. Confirmed breeding populations of regionally threatened bird species include River Lapwing, Wire-tailed Swallow, Plain Martin and Spot-billed Duck.
In September 2011, IUCN, International Union for Conservation of Nature Lao PDR Office organized the first ecological survey of the Mekong River between Luang Prabang and Vientiane. This was the first step of a five year Mekong conservation project, financed by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF).
The study area is part of a critical migration and breeding corridor for a large assemblage of migratory fish, including the famous Mekong Giant Catfish, which undertake seasonal movements along the mainstream and tributaries between the Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia and southern China.
This river section contributes to maintenance of the integrity of ecosystem services along the upper Mekong, including regulation of seasonal flow, silt entrapment and flood protection.
The area also supports around 30,000 local residents, who depend directly on healthy populations of migratory fish and other fauna and flora, intact river habitats, a reliable water source and protection against flooding.
However, within the study area, channel habitats are being lost or degraded due to increasing infrastructure development (roads, ports, sand mining, bank reinforcement), conversion of riverbank habitats for agriculture, over-fishing, and hunting. At least three dams are also planned along the Mekong mainstream within the study area.
The first ecological field survey for this river section was implemented by IUCN Lao PDR in September 2011.
The scientific team included 11 participants from IUCN Lao PDR, the National University of Laos (NUoL) Faculty of Science, the Lao Living Aquatic Resources Research Center (LARReC) and international consultants.
Ecological surveys were made by boats with frequent stops in different natural habitats along the Mekong River. The survey also included interviews with villagers in order to gain a better understanding of the use of wildlife along this stretch of the river. The preliminary results showed that, despite a low population density, natural habitats and wildlife populations may be threatened and decreasing.
A second ecological survey will be planned in 2012 during the dry season .This will provide new information on the status, distribution, and abundance of a suite of species of global or regional significance with the potential for re-discovery of at least one species, River Tern, and for discovery of new species to science and/or Lao PDR.
After conclusion of the ecological surveys, the next phases of this five years project will focus on conservation through a participatory approach with local communities. The main activities will be Protection of sites with the highest biodiversity value will be implemented, along with developing and expanding community co-management of key natural resources, and raising the capacity of district and provincial government staff to manage natural resources.