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What China's Belt And Road Means For Elephants In Laos


Now let's look south of China's capital 1,600 miles to Laos. China is building a railway in Laos, and our producer, Ashley Westerman, visited.

Ashley, what'd you learn?

ASHLEY WESTERMAN, BYLINE: I learned that locals are concerned about one of China's global projects. And the nickname of Laos is a clue to what that problem is.

INSKEEP: The nickname.

WESTERMAN: Yes. Laos is known as the land of a million elephants. But elephants are getting scarce. And at the Elephant Conservation Center, I learned more about how the railway could make things worse.

I was there at snack time on a warm, spring afternoon. Five female Asian elephants, each over seven feet tall and weighing some 6,000 pounds, were standing in the shade, munching on sugar cane and banana tree stalks fed to them by their handlers or mahouts. Elephant guide Phongsavath Malayathong (ph) waves toward the largest elephant.

PHONGSAVATH MALAYATHONG: This elephant, we call - her name is Mekontu (ph).


WESTERMAN: This sanctuary opened in 2001 and, with support from the government, is the only conservation park for elephants in Laos. Currently, there's 29 elephants here, most of them brought here after years of working in the country's logging industry. The goal is to breed them in captivity and eventually release them into the wild.

MALAYATHONG: Elephant is very, very important for the Lao people because we respect the elephants, you know, a long time ago like a Buddha.

WESTERMAN: To this day, elephants remain a cultural icon in Laos, marching in parades for holidays and celebrations. And Malayathong says there used to be thousands of elephants here. But now there are only about 800 left - 400 in captivity and another 400 in the wild.

ANABEL LOPEZ PEREZ: Both populations are not sustainable and are actually declining.

WESTERMAN: Biologist Anabel Lopez Perez has a reason for it.

LOPEZ PEREZ: Laos changed to be 70% covered by forests to be now 40% covered by forests. And this create another problem that is called habitat fragmentation.

WESTERMAN: Habitat fragmentation - now a massive new China-funded rail project slated for the northern part of the country has some conservationists worried, like Perez - worried that the elephants' remaining habitat will be threatened.

LOPEZ PEREZ: You will affect not only elephants but all the wildlife.

LOPEZ PEREZ: The Laos government insists that when the high-speed train starts running in 2021 that it will bring much-needed jobs and more tourism to the country. Yet many experts actually don't think it will help ordinary Lao people at all. The famous downtown night market in Luang Prabang is already a huge tourist attraction. Under the shadow of the sacred Mount Phousi, the stalls stretch for several blocks. And you can buy almost anything.

Do you have Lao tea? Or, no, just coffee...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Green tea, ginger tea, black tea...

WESTERMAN: Now, Luang Prabang will be one of the major stops on the new railway. But even without a train, this picturesque town on the Mekong River has become a popular tourist destination on its own. Stats from local officials show that the number of tourists to Luang Prabang has jumped more than 600% since 2000, and a majority of them are Chinese. But not everyone is thrilled with all these tourists, nor do they want more.

KUN: All the money go back to China - not for a lot of people.

WESTERMAN: A few streets down, I met Kun (ph). That's the name he chose to identify himself with because he's afraid that talking to the media will lead to retribution from Laos' communist government. Kun says Chinese tourists tend to only book Chinese tour groups, stay in Chinese-run hotels and eat at Chinese-run restaurants. Also...

KUN: I worry that when the train complete, many Chinese people will stay in Laos.

WESTERMAN: So, Steve, he's saying that he's afraid Chinese immigrants will take jobs away from Lao people.

INSKEEP: Perspective on one of China's many construction projects around the world.

NPR's Ashley Westerman, thanks so much.

WESTERMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.