- Eric Losh, an art director and illustrator from New York City, recently published a children’s picture book, Wonders of the Annamites, about the wildlife of the Annamite Mountains in partnership with a Laos-based non-profit called Project Anoulak.
- In all, the book offers gorgeous illustrations depicting twelve different habitats and 60 species.
- Mongabay interviewed Losh and Project Anoulak founder and director Camille Coudrat about the many threats facing Annamites wildlife, what they hope the book will contribute to conservation efforts, and whether or not they have any favorites among the many fascinating species found in the Annamite Mountains.
The Annamite Mountains of Laos and Vietnam are home to an abundance of rare wildlife, and now you can explore the mountain range’s natural wonders from your own home.
Eric Losh, an art director and illustrator from New York City, recently published a children’s picture book, Wonders of the Annamites, about the wildlife of the Annamite Mountains in partnership with a Laos-based conservation and education non-profit called Project Anoulak.
The story told by Wonders of the Annamites follows a family on their journey through the mountains. Along the way, readers get a glimpse of some of the unique wildlife that call the Annamites home, from gibbons and douc langur monkeys to the Crested argus pheasant and the elusive, antelope-like saola. In all, the book offers gorgeous illustrations depicting twelve different habitats and 60 species.
All of these species are imperiled by habitat loss and rampant poaching, Losh says: “The situation is grim, and unfortunately, most people outside of conservation circles don’t even know that the region exists.” He’s hoping that, through distribution of this book as well as the forthcoming editions in French, Lao, Vietnamese, and Mandarin, he and Project Anoulak can raise awareness and funding for the conservation of the Annamites.
Losh also wrote and illustrated a children’s book called The Chorus of Kibale about the wildlife of Kibale National Park in Uganda that was featured here on Mongabay in November 2013.
Mongabay interviewed Losh and Project Anoulak founder and director Camille Coudrat about the many threats facing Annamites wildlife, what they hope the book will contribute to conservation efforts, and whether or not they have any favorites among the many fascinating species found in the Annamite Mountains.
Mongabay: Tell us about how this project was first conceived.
Camille Coudrat: Over the past years while setting up Project Anoulak’s conservation programs in Laos, I have identified the main gaps in implementing conservation in Nakai-Nam Theun National Protected Area. One of those gaps is the lack of awareness for biodiversity conservation of the local communities living inside the ecosystem of the Annamite Mountains, and directly related to this, the quasi-inexistence of any educational resources related to biodiversity conservation of the region for children. In the medium to long term, it is up to the new generation to protect ecosystems and biodiversity. Developing from a young age empathy for the nature that surrounds us is a key step for safeguarding it.
For a few years I had in mind to create a children’s book that would feature the key species on the Annamite Mountains. This would not only be used at the site where Project Anoulak is working but all across the region by projects working in the Annamites and beyond. It could also be used in the West to raise awareness of the international community for this very special mountain range and its very special species.
I first became aware of Eric Losh’s art through the Holiday cards that he has illustrated for the Saola Working Group (of which I am a member). They led me to discover more of his artwork, including a beautiful children’s book he did in 2013 about primates in Uganda called The Chorus of Kibale. It was clear that he would be a perfect fit for our project! We met via a Skype call connecting us between the US and Laos, which started us on this collaborative journey.
Mongabay: Eric, how’d you first become interested in the wildlife of the Annamite Mountains? And how’d you first get involved with Project Anoulak?
Eric Losh: I’ve come to learn about the Annamites through various news reports (including those from Mongabay) that revealed details of the incredible new species discoveries in the area — from the Saola to the Bare-faced Bulbul. The news and state of conservation in the Annamites motivated me to contact Bill Robichaud from the Saola Working Group to offer my talents to the cause. After creating various illustrations for holiday cards throughout the years, he connected me with Camille from Project Anoulak with this dream book opportunity!
Mongabay: The story follows a family’s journey through the Annamites. Is it based on a real journey, or was that simply a narrative framework you adopted to facilitate telling the story? Would the story family’s journey actually be possible for a real family to recreate, or is much of the terrain actually impassable?
Eric Losh: The Annamite Mountains ecosystem is teeming with biodiverse wildlife, but humans have also been an important part of the landscape for generations as well. So we would be remiss to not include them among the portrayal of life in the mountains. So I decided to use one family’s journey as a narrative to open and close the story as a way to give the book some context to the people who live there, and make it feel relatable to their daily lives.
Camille Coudrat: As for the passibility of the Annamites, there are plenty of villages scattered throughout — indeed, some of them are highly remote enclaves amidst thick forests. But villagers commonly journey between villages to visit family members or friends, and to collect non-timber forest products. Despite the challenging terrain, it is customary for the local communities to pass through these ecosystems, during which time they encounter wildlife. This book is an additional opportunity for them to learn about many species that are either too rare or too well-hidden for them to regularly see, but are part of what makes a healthy local ecosystem.
Mongabay: The book portrays twelve different locations and 60 species. How much time did you spend researching the different habitats, and how much detail about them were you able to fit into the book?
Eric Losh: Camille came up with a list of the key species she wanted to be illustrated in the book, specifically ones that are endemic, rare, beautiful, iconic, evolutionarily distinct, little known, and highly threatened in the region (and beyond). We decide to select two key animals for each scene that would be the main subjects featured in the text descriptions, but we spent a lot of time and research to cast auxiliary animals into the background to fill out each habitat scene. To do this, we also sought advice, suggestions, and comments from wildlife experts and colleagues working in the region, such as Bill Robichaud, Robert Timmins, and Will Duckworth.
To further research the illustrations, I spent a lot of time looking through tons of pictures from the field and from camera-traps pre-selected by Camille (Project Anoulak has well over 10,000 pictures!) to get a better idea of the details of not just the animals, but everything from orchids to ferns to tree bark. Many of the illustrations in the book were directly inspired by certain locations in the photos.
Despite the fact that it remains an illustrated children’s book, it was very important for it to be as ecologically accurate as possible, including the representation of certain behaviors of the different species. We even have a section at the end of the book that provides additional facts and details about all of the wildlife featured throughout.
Mongabay: Of the species featured, do you have any favorites? Were there any that were particularly intriguing or surprising to you when you first learned about them yourself? Or any that were particularly fun to draw for the book?
Eric Losh: This project was an incredible opportunity to illustrate some very unusual but beautiful creatures. From civets and colugos to colorful monkeys and big cats, there are so many favorites to choose! But I think it’s safe to say that I’m most captivated by the gibbons. Ever since my wife and I saw them on our honeymoon in Borneo last summer, I’ve been hooked. Wonders of the Annamites features the Lao version of these acrobatic apes — a family of singing Southern White-cheeked gibbons (Nomascus siki) high atop the forest canopy.
There are many other favorites in the book such as the saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis), which has been such an enigma to the scientific world since its ‘discovery’ in the 90’s. It’s so rare to turn up new megafauna like this anywhere, but it’s happened time and time again in the Annamites with the large-antlered muntjac, Annamite striped rabbit, and the rodent-like kha-nyou.
As for the species that were the most fun to illustrate, it would be the birds. Choosing them is where I get to have fun within the design and color scheme of each overall illustration. I get to think ‘this tree could use a splash of brilliant red or orange’ or ‘maybe I’ll camouflage this bird against that tree trunk and let the reader find it.’ It’s a great opportunity to pepper in dashes of local flavor to the illustrations. We took the opportunity to not just feature the rare Annamites-restricted bird species, but also those that are more common across Southeast Asia for which many local people may already have a familiarity or appreciation.
Mongabay: Habitat loss and poaching are key threats to the region. Do you represent that in the book at all? Did you research these threats much for the book, and if so, what can you tell us about them?
Eric Losh: At the end of the story, the family has a remarkable encounter with a saola, an animal that is so rare that it is almost never seen by humans. The family is shocked to discover that the animal’s leg has been caught in a wire poacher’s snare, so they spring into action to rescue and release it. This encounter serves as a reminder to the reader that there are significant threats to the animals out in the forest, and small actions by local people can have big impacts on wildlife survival.
Camille Coudrat: Being an NGO based in the Annamite Mountains, we see first-hand the actions threatening the region and attempt to tackle them through our different programs. We have a section at the end of the story called ‘Field Notes’ where we provide an overview of not just the geography of the Annamites, but the threats that are putting the environment and wildlife at risk as well.
One of the main threats that we see in the book is over-hunting, which has reached dramatic levels mostly along the Vietnamese boarders, implemented by Vietnamese poachers working for the trade. This is because most of the wildlife population on the Vietnamese side has already been decimated, so they are coming to Laos, where populations are also rapidly declining. There is so much demand for wildlife products in Vietnam and China (for meat, traditional medicine, status symbols or pets), that poachers (who then sell to middle men traders) use snaring techniques that catch large amounts of animals in relatively short periods. They set up long fences made out of trees and branches, which are open at intervals every few meters. As animals naturally tend to follow features of the forest, they follow those fences and eventually attempt to pass through the openings. It’s at those openings that wire snares will indiscriminately catch the leg of any animal that passes through.
On the Lao side, along the Vietnamese border, some species populations have already faced local extinction. Threats are not only on animals but on valuable tree species too. Selective logging is abundant, driving local extinction of tree species such as Rosewood or Chinese Swamp Cypress.
One of Project Anoulak’s programs includes law enforcement and patrolling. As of 2016, Project Anoulak has four community-based teams patrolling one of the Core Biodiversity Zones of Nakai-Nam Theun National Protected Area. They are deterring and arresting illegal poachers, working in collaboration with the local authorities. All other NGOs working in the Annamite Mountains include patrolling teams that work tirelessly to remove snares that are plaguing the forests. In 2015 alone, the Saola Working Group’s partner organizations removed over 37,000 snares in five sites only located within the Annamite Mountains of Laos and Vietnam.
Mongabay: Ultimately, what do you hope the book will achieve?
Eric Losh: The book will be produced in four language editions as physical and/or e-books in English, English/French, English/Lao, and English/Vietnamese. Through sales and dissemination of the book, we hope to achieve the following:
Firstly, Project Anoulak wants the book to raise awareness of biodiversity conservation in the Annamite Mountains among local communities, by distributing the book to school libraries in villages within the Nakai-Nam Theun National Protected Areas where Project Anoulak works. The organization will also be collaborating with other NGOs in the region, as well as providing teachers the training they need to use the story most effectively in their classrooms.
Secondly, through sales of physical and e-books in the US, Europe, and urban areas in Vietnam and Laos, we hope it will raise the awareness of the international community for biodiversity conservation in the Annamite mountains (and beyond) and for the work Project Anoulak is doing.
And lastly, we hope to use the book as a fundraising opportunity to further Project Anoulak’s education programs.
Camille Coudrat: Ask any nature conservation group/practitioner, I think they can all confirm to you that one of the challenges in this region (and particularly in Laos) to achieve conservation is the lack of education resources to engage and raise awareness of the local communities. The Annamite Mountains are one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on Earth, but until now, there was not a single book for children about it.
Teaching using art combines emotions and learning. It is well-known that in order to protect something you must care about it. Art awakens most humans’ emotions. If we engage an emotional response in a community towards an issue, people will be more likely to engage in protecting it.
Under the current biodiversity loss crisis in this region, conservation groups need to adopt pragmatic and innovative approaches. We aim to contribute to this endeavor through our programs, including the creation of new education resources for the region, which will even have a wider reach in Europe and the USA.