World Tiger Day comes and goes with­out a roar in Myan­mar

Mizzima Business Weekly - - CONTENTS - Peter Janssen

World Tiger Day came and went on June 29 with lit­tle fanfare in Myan­mar, a coun­try which boasts the “world’s largest tiger re­serve.” A decade ago there was great op­ti­mism that Myan­mar might be­come the sal­va­tion of the re­gion’s fast-dis­ap­pear­ing big cats, given its vast re­main­ing tracks of for­est re­serves when com­pared with other South­east Asian coun­tries. The tiger ma­nia peaked in 2004, when the then-mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment of­fi­cially des­ig­nated Hukaung Val­ley, a 21,890 square kilo­me­tre area in the north­ern Kachin State, the world’s largest tiger re­serve, with the sup­port of the US-based Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion So­ci­ety and the Pan­thera big cat con­ser­va­tion group. Ten years later there are very few tigers on the reser­va­tion.

“Hukaung Val­ley, I think we can say, has less than ten tigers and you could pos­si­bly put the naught at the front of that num­ber,” said Thomas Gray, re­gional man­ager of WWF Greater Mekong. “There are very few tigers left in what was, when it was es­tab­lished, meant to be one of the flag­ship tiger re­serves,” he told a gath­er­ing at the For­eign Cor­re­spon­dents Club of Thai­land (FCCT) in Bangkok on World Tiger Day.

Hukaung Val­ley is just one of many sad con­ser­va­tion sto­ries in Myan­mar, and in the rest of the Mekong Sub-Re­gion, for that mat­ter. Poverty, poach­ing, law­less­ness and plun­der of nat­u­ral re­sources with or with­out the con­sent of lo­cal pop­u­la­tions have com­bined to form a lethal force against which tigers stand lit­tle chance of sur­vival.

“Look­ing at data from Cam­bo­dia, Laos, Viet­nam and Myan­mar, sci­en­tists think at the mo­ment that these coun­tries do not have func­tion­ing tiger pop­u­la­tions,” said Anak Pat­tanav­i­bool, Thai­land pro­gramme di­rec­tor of the Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion So­ci­ety. “They might have some left but not func­tion­ing. The pop­u­la­tions are too small.” In the Sub-Mekong Re­gion, Thai­land is the only coun­try with a “func­tion­ing” pop­u­la­tion of tigers, and most of these are clus­tered in the so-called Western For­est Com­plex, bor­der­ing Myan­mar’s Te­nasserim moun­tain range. Over the past decade, a re­cov­ery pro­gramme in the Western For­est Com­plex, an 18,000 square kilo­me­tre area that cov­ers Huai Kha Kaeng and Thung Yai Nare­suan Wildlife sanc­tu­ar­ies, has boosted its wild tiger pop­u­la­tion to an es­ti­mated 137, the largest “func­tion­ing pop­u­la­tion” in main­land South­east Asia. Tiger pop­u­la­tions are usu­ally clas­si­fied as func­tion­ing in an area if there are at least 50 of the big cats.

Over­all, the Asian tiger pic­ture is bad, but less so in South Asia than in South­east Asia. In­dia, for in­stance, in Jan­uary an­nounced that its wild tiger pop­u­la­tion had reached 2,226, more than two-thirds of the world’s to­tal of about 3,000 big cats left in the wild, com­pared with 100,000 a cen­tury ago. Rus­sia’s tiger pop­u­la­tion ranks sec­ond, while Nepal has been mak­ing progress in bring­ing their big cats back from the brink of ex­tinc­tion. What In­dia and Rus­sia have in com­mon is good law en­force­ment. What In­dia and Nepal share is a sim­i­lar food cul­ture. “Most peo­ple in In­dia and Nepal are vege­tar­i­ans so the do­mes­tic pres­sures on wildlife in

these coun­tries is much less than what we get in South­east Asia,” WWF’s Gray said.

In fact, much of the il­licit traf­fic in wildlife in main­land South­east Asia is cater­ing not just to do­mes­tic mar­kets but also for the re­gion. Viet­nam and China are the Mekong re­gion’s big con­sumers of ex­otic treats such as tiger parts, pan­golins, snakes, tur­tles and ivory. Myan­mar, still a small player in the re­gional traf­fic, has been re­port­ing grow­ing seizures of tur­tles, snakes and pan­golins but usu­ally in the bor­der re­gions. Much of the traf­fic ap­pears to be do­mes­tic, rather than geared to ex­ports.

“There’s not re­ally much (traf­fick­ing) hap­pen­ing in Yan­gon,” said Brian Gon­za­les, the Free­land Foun­da­tion’s Lia­son Of­fi­cer for ASEAN-WEN, the re­gional task force on anti-wildlife trade set up in 2006. “It’s all in the bor­der ar­eas and that’s not re­ally mon­u­men­tal there as well,” Gon­za­les said of Myan­mar’s wildlife trade. Myan­mar ar­guably doesn’t have the nec­es­sary in­fra­struc­ture in place yet to be­come a ma­jor transit route for il­licit wildlife cargo, such as crates of African ivory be­ing shipped or flown to China. Bangkok and Sin­ga­pore pro­vide bet­ter air­ports and cargo ports for this il­licit traf­fic, which earns an es­ti­mated US$23 bil­lion per year glob­ally.

Myan­mar’s Na­ture and Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion Di­vi­sion un­der the Min­istry of En­vi­ron­men­tal Con­ser­va­tion and Forestry has been an in­creas­ingly ac­tive par­tic­i­pant in ASEAN-WEN in re­cent years and joined the group’s Op­er­a­tion Cobra III for the first time on May 4-17 this year. The op­er­a­tion, in­clud­ing of­fi­cers from 62 coun­tries, col­lab­o­rated in 300 ar­rests and over 600 seizures of wildlife con­tra­band, in­clud­ing 12 tons of ele­phant ivory, 119 rhino horns, 10 tons of rosewood and 344 black ter­rapin tur­tles.

Free­land Foun­da­tion, which co­or­di­nates the re­gional en­force­ment oper­a­tions in ASEAN-WEN, has been im­pressed by their Myan­mar coun­ter­parts to date. “I think they are ded­i­cated, gen­uinely con­cerned,” Free­land’s Gon­za­les said. “In Laos we have a lot of sto­ries, but Myan­mar has been very ac­tive in ASEAN-WEN and Cobra III. If you give them a tip-off they will col­lab­o­rate.” Myan­mar’s big chal­lenge in wildlife crime en­force­ment is more about money, or the lack thereof, than cor­rup­tion in high places, ac­cord­ing to Free­land sources.

The US-based Free­land Foun­da­tion ini­ti­ated a forestry ranger train­ing pro­ject in Alaung­daw Kathapa Na­tional Park, Sa­gaing Di­vi­sion, about ten years ago, be­fore with­draw­ing from the coun­try due to bud­get con­straints. “They were quite or­ga­nized, but it was amaz­ing how lit­tle money they had,” said Tim Red­ford, Free­land Train­ing Co­or­di­na­tor, who headed the pro­ject. “When we were work­ing with them they were us­ing World War II Lee-Enfield ri­fles, with the sin­gle bolt ac­tion,” he re­called. More re­cent visi­tors to the park say a team of 30 rangers share one ri­fle be­tween them.

“It’s money,” Red­ford said. “They don’t have any bud­gets for these parks. All sort of mod­ern­iza­tion is needed…from es­tab­lish­ing more ro­bust work­ing meth­ods to con­vert­ing their pa­per parks into real parks.”

But with other se­ri­ous bud­get de­mands to deal with wide­spread poverty, in­ad­e­quate na­tional in­fra­struc­ture and poor so­cial ser­vices, con­ser­va­tion does not ap­pear to be high on the agenda. Shortly af­ter the new gov­ern­ment was in­stalled one of the first things it did was to merge the Min­istry of En­vi­ron­ment with the Min­istry of Forestry, to cut bud­get costs. Myan­mar con­ser­va­tion ef­forts are also still ham­pered by US sanc­tions. The State Depart­ment, for in­stance, will not ex­tend fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance to any Free­land ac­tiv­i­ties in Myan­mar.

Thai­land too faces daunt­ing fi­nan­cial con­straints in con­serv­ing its re­main­ing tiger pop­u­la­tions, but it gets a lit­tle help from her friends. The World Bank, for in­stance, re­cently pro­vided a US$7 mil­lion grant to the Depart­ment of Na­tional Parks to as­sist with the tiger re­cov­ery pro­gramme in the Western For­est Com­plex. Myan­mar may in­di­rectly ben­e­fit from Thai­land’s tiger con­ser­va­tion ef­forts in the Western For­est Com­plex and its Kaeng Krachan For­est Com­plex since both re­serves con­nect with the Te­nasserim for­est across the bor­der in Myan­mar.

Lit­tle is known about the tiger pop­u­la­tion in the Te­nasserim moun­tain range, partly be­cause the area is off bounds to Myan­mar forestry author­i­ties as it is un­der the con­trol of the Karen Na­tional Union (KNU). One pos­i­tive de­vel­op­ment for con­ser­va­tion has been more work in the Te­nasserim area since the KNU and other in­sur­gent groups signed a ceasefire agree­ment with the gov­ern­ment in 2012. The Fauna & Flora In­ter­na­tional (FFI), have been work­ing in the Taninthary­i and Lenya Na­ture Re­serves since early 2014, con­duct­ing bio­di­ver­sity sur­veys with col­lab­o­ra­tion from both the KNU and the gov­ern­ment.

” There is some kind of rap­proche­ment there and that’s made it eas­ier to work,” said Mark Grindley, FFI’s Taninthary­i Pro­gramme Man­ager. “And there are land­mines all over the land­scape so we have to work with peo­ple who know where they are,” he said of their col­lab­o­ra­tion with the KNU.

FFI’s tiger sur­veys in Te­nasserim re­main in­con­clu­sive on the num­bers. “We do have ev­i­dence of tigers, but the num­bers do not look promis­ing,” Grindley said.

Myan­mar’s best bet on re­pop­u­lat­ing their big cats may lie across the bor­der in Thai­land. “I think it’s naïve to as­sume there are huge num­bers of them now, but if Thai­land is suc­cess­ful (in the Western For­est Com­plex) then maybe it can be re­pop­u­lated in the fu­ture,” said WWF’s Gray.

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