Reporter: Greg Wilesmith
The Amazon Of Asia – Laos
Like many Foreign Correspondent assignments, it started with what seemed a simple notion: a journey along the mighty, muddy Mekong, the world’s richest biosphere (with the possible exception of the Amazon), and tap into the debate about damming the river. Laos offered a good focus since nine of the eleven planned mainstream hydro-electric dams along the length of the river may be built here. Government policy is to turn Laos into The Battery Of Asia.
Day 1. Fly with ABC South Asia correspondent Zoe Daniel and Bangkok bureau cameraman David Leland to Luang Prabang in northern Laos. It was listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list a few years ago – a well-built, small-scale river city featuring 34 Buddhist temples, ranging from magnificent to renovator’s delight. We were met by a Lao government representative, known in the trade as a minder, who would travel every kilometre with us. The Laos government is old-style communist of the hammer-and-sickle flag variety which don’t much like prying foreign journalists; they intended to keep an eye on us. First though, we would be stung for filming permits, in US dollars thank you; in Laos, a million Lao kip amounts to not very much.
Day 2. Not long after dawn, the torrential rain of a few hours earlier had ceased, the Mekong appeared serene and our long boat seemed remarkably stable. The rackety engine didn’t bear close examination but there were life jackets, as promised, and paddles. What could possibly go wrong? Mist hung on the green forested hills and it was one of those days that the thought occurred: they’re paying me to do this! We set out to find a fisherman who could give us a water-level view of life on the Mekong. We found Kham La net fishing along the banks upstream from Luang Prabang. His narrow dugout canoe was expertly piloted by six year old Kham Ai, the youngest of eight children. It’s getting towards the end of wet season and the river is swollen – not the best time for fish.
Day 3. A pre-dawn start just for a change, to pre-position ourselves outside Wat Xieng Thong, a famous Buddhist temple dating from the 5th century and sitting high above the Mekong. As dawn breaks, orange-robed, shaven–headed, mostly teenaged monks file silently along the streets, silver bowls wedged against hips for the traditional gathering of alms. A quick breakfast and then all aboard the HMAS Foreign Correspondent for a run down river. The aim was to try to get as far as the site of the planned Xayaboury dam, which is emerging as the test case for damming the mainstream of the Mekong. Several hours later the boatman was nervous; the river was running high and he was unhappy that his boat was being buffeted by rapids. It soon became clear that taking the scenic Mekong route to the capital Vientiane at two days plus sailing was a non-starter.
Day 4. Van loaded, we headed up into the mountains. The trip to the capital, we were told, could take eight hours, or it could take 12. The road was much improved but the shrugging shoulders of both the driver and the minder suggested they knew enough about camera crews to be fatalistic. We would stop, they knew, when picture opportunities were too good to pass up. Needless to say the van came to a bone-jarring halt fairly frequently and 12 hours later, we pulled into the old French colonial capital Vientiane. It will celebrate its 450th anniversary later this year. It lacks the charm of Luang Prebang but it is the power centre – a place to seek answers on the dams.
Day 5. The narrow corridors of the Department of Energy & Mines are plastered with an extraordinary array of dam projects. Civil servants bustle about. Not much doubt here that dams and hydro-electricity are seen to represent the future for Laos. Xaypaseuth Phomsoupha, boss of the department, who had studied in Australia, strikes a clear theme. Too many Lao, particularly in the country areas, exist on less than two dollars a day. Selling power to Laos’ energy-thirsty and rapidly industrialising neighbours, particularly Thailand and Vietnam, will earn billions on foreign exchange earnings, which the government says will be used to raise living standards. A few streets away at the World Wildlife Fund, Stuart Chapman takes us into a muddy garden, bedevilled with red ants, and painstakingly sets out the catastrophic consequences of damming the Mekong. The Xayaboury dam (Day 3) would likely “herald the extinction” of one of the river’s most extraordinary creatures – the giant catfish. As the sun settled over the Mekong, we fetched up at a rather grand building on the river bank, the headquarters of the Mekong River Commission. The MRC, partly funded by Australian aid, aims to provide the Mekong River countries with the best possible scientific and technical advice about managing the river. The Laos government has formally notified its neighbours, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam that it wants the Xayaboury dam to be built. The MRC expects to take six months to assess the project before offering scientific and technical advice. In the end, though, politicians will decide.
Day 6. Back in the van and heading up to into the hills, into dam country. Theun Hinboun has been operating a dam up here for 12 years and Somphone Simmalavong does his best to sell us on the benefits of hydro-power. Annual revenue, he says, is $60 million, with 60% of the dividend going to the government. In fact they’re making so much money that giant earthmoving machines are gouging a massive pit alongside the existing power station to double the number of turbines. To double capacity, they’ll need to re-locate another 11 villages. Overnight in the dam camp.
Day 7. A 4WD drive vehicle is essential to get along a muddy track to yet another re-settlement camp where a meeting is in progress. People are complaining that their neat, orderly village of stilt homes with galvanised iron rooves is far from their farms and the river where it was easy to fish. Cham Pha takes us into the home he’s building with compensation money, 40 million kip (about $5,000). It’s a work in progress but electricity from the power station means he can run his satellite television, showing an English premier league game and karaoke sound system. Even so, he’s still adjusting to the idea that if his family wants to eat something, he has to buy it. The day ends with a rush, zipping along a massive reservoir around the other side of the mountain to the largest infrastructure project in Laos, the Nam Theun Two hydro scheme, which has cost $1.5 billion and only a few months ago began providing a return – an estimated $2 billion to the government over the life of the 25 year concession.
Day 8. More filming on the reservoir in golden morning light and then along the extraordinarily long power station outflow channel, flanked in parts by giant electricity pylons marching into the distance. A long travelling day to Pakse, the biggest city in the south of Laos. Sunset over the Mekong – spectacular.
Day 9. You can have too much of dams and hydro techno talk, so when the opportunity arises in Champasak province to do a bit of rock-hopping, we catch a barge across the Mekong, drive as far as possible and then hike with camera and tripod up to a world heritage site, Wat Phu, an ancient Khmer religious complex dating from the 5th century. Further down river the thunder of the Khon Phapheng Falls can be heard before they’re seen. On first sight unremarkable, the falls are vertically challenged but their sheer scale is impressive – as wide as 14 kilometres in the wet season. So too the power of the river; you can see why they want to dam it. Crying out for a helicopter shot, but not on Foreign Correspondent’s budget.
Day 10. Pandemonium in a fish market. In the pre-breakfast rush, fresh supplies have arrived. The Mekong is the biggest fresh-water fishery in the world, with some 1200 species, and most are migratory. Experts warn that in plonking a dam down on part of the Kohn Falls, the disruption to the Don Sahong channel could be disastrous for fishing in Laos, Cambodia and further downriver in Vietnam. Late afternoon, yet another long boat took us without normal protocols just across the border into Cambodia, joining tourist boats battling for prime position. Fortunately a pod of Irrawaddy dolphins showed themselves. No spectacular breaches and frustrating for cameraman David Leland but probably the best possible way to end a memorable journey. Like most visitors, we leave hoping the dolphins and the fish can survive the damming of the Mekong.
A fish with curving vampire fangs, a gecko that looks as if it is wearing lipstick and a carnivorous plant more than seven metres high may sound like creatures from a nightmare, but they are real.
They are just three of 145 new species found in the area surrounding the Mekong River in South-East Asia in 2009.
The species have been highlighted in a WWF International report issued ahead of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in Nagoya, Japan this month.
The environment organisation says the diversity of the region – so rich that an average of three new species were discovered each week last year – highlights the need for action to ensure these new finds survive.
Among the animals highlighted in the report New Blood: Greater Mekong New Species Discoveries 2009 is the dracula minnow, with bulging eyes and two sharp fangs curving from its low-slung jaw.
Luckily, the fish only grows to a maximum of 16.7 millimetres.
Cuter by far is the lipstick gecko, barely big enough to perch on a finger with a dark barred pattern across its lips suggestive of cosmetics.
Other featured creatures include a fangless snake, a frog that chirps like a cricket and a pitcher plant that traps insects and grows to a height of over seven metres.
The report says the discoveries highlight the Greater Mekong’s immense biodiversity but they also pinpoint the fragility of the region’s diverse habitats and species.
The WWF report cited the likely local extinction of the javan rhino in Vietnam as one tragic indicator of the decline of biodiversity in recent times.
The Greater Mekong region covers Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and the southern Chinese province of Yunnan.
By Abbie Thomas for ABC Science Online
The researchers found worker ants ventured out at night, whereas the winged forms were active during the day (Ajay Narendra )
Worker bull ants have military-style night vision, while their higher status winged nest mates see best during the day, Australian researchers have discovered.
The research led by Dr Ajay Narendra from the Australian National University and colleagues is published this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
It is the first research to show that individual ants of the same species living in the same colony have huge variation in the structure of their eyes, depending on what job they do and when they do it.
A colony of bull ants contains three types or castes: sterile female workers who forage on the ground, fertile females who briefly fly then live in the dark nest as queens for up to 15 years, and winged fertile males who have a short life on the wing searching for a queen to mate with, before dying.
Biologists already puzzle over how a single colony of genetically identical ants can have such different body shapes. But now it seems even the fine structure of the eye can show dramatic variation.
The team studied four different species of bull ant (Myrmecia) living in eucalypt forests on the outskirts of Canberra.
They recorded at what time of day or night each caste member of each species was active. They then preserved the eyes of the insects and examined the fine structure under a microscope.
They found that the rhabdom (a light collecting structure in the eye) was much larger in ants active at night than those active during the day.
Dr Narendra says what surprised them even more was that in one of the four species, Myrmecia pyriformes, the workers ventured out at night, whereas the winged forms were active during the day.
“In other species, workers and winged forms are both active at the same time,” he said.
“It was exciting because it was happening within a single species.”
The researchers were stunned that genetically similar individuals could have such different eye structures.
Unlike us, ants see a pixelated world in a 360-degree panorama. Their compound eyes are made up of facets, like separate windows, which divide up what they see.
Worker ants spend most of their time foraging on the ground, and have relatively few, large facets located at the front of their eye to help them see up close. Flying males, on the other hand, have smaller facets with lenses that ‘overlap’. This gives them a greater chance of seeing a distant moving object like a flying queen bee.
“There has been a lot of evidence that says animals which are closely related have to be active at the same time of the day,” Dr Narendra said.
“It was thought that if you are closely related you have very little flexibility to evolve different structures physiologically and anatomically. But in this case, it turns out that even within closely related or even a single species you can have different eye structures tuned to different times of the day.”
While Dr Narendra says he has ‘no idea’ how genetically identical individuals can be so different, he says more work is needed to understand how the eye structures grow and develop in the different caste types.
Invertebrate biology expert, Emeritus Professor Dr Andrew Beattie of Macquarie University in Sydney says the discovery could be an ideal vehicle for explaining the mechanism and importance of epigenetics – the study of inherited changes in the body that don’t appear to have a genetic basis.
He says is also provides important insights into how caste differentiation can affect individuals in a colony, such as “being able to fly versus being confined to running on the ground, and providing special equipment for day or night activity.”
“The study also shows, incidentally, how a very common, and often maligned species can be of profound scientific importance … should we not be conserving every species on the grounds that you never know which ones are going to be important to us?,” he said.