World Tiger Day comes and goes without a roar in Myanmar
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.