Agriculture Threatens a Tiger Sanctuary in Myanmar

Dr. Alan Rabinowitz is well known in global conservation circles.  He has been instrumental in the creation of numerous conservation initiatives for species throughout the world.  Representing WCS as a leading member of our Science and Exploration program, his personal mission and that of the program, is to explore, survey, and protect the Earth’s last wild places, and promote science-based approaches to the study, conservation, and management of threatened wildlife species across their entire range.

With that in mind, Alan has worked tirelessly for the last 13 years to set up a wildlife sanctuary in Myanmar.  The Hukaung Valley Tiger Reserve is 8,500 square miles of prime tiger habitat, protected formally by the Myanmar government.  Of course, an accomplishment of this magnitude doesn’t come without a little finesse.

When Alan learned that two massive agricultural concessions within the Reserve were awarded to two of Myanmar’s wealthiest businessmen he immediately dashed off letters to those government officials he had previously been in touch with regarding the creation of the Reserve.  Alan reminded these men that if the concessions were allowed to ignore prior agreements, tigers would be lost from Myanmar forever.

The two agricultural sites represented the protected area’s first big test and a test of the commitment of the relevant government departments to our joint efforts in saving some of their most precious wild lands.  While Alan had always expected development interests to eventually come into the valley, he hadn’t expected it to occur so soon, at such a scale, and on such short notice.  But the whole premise of adaptive management is that conservation, particularly at the landscape level, should be dynamic and fluid.  You just have to know where to draw the line.  WCS agreed that our line had to be drawn at the core wildlife sanctuary and the Tigers Forever site.  We could not continue massive effort and investment in a protected area if the core of the area could be taken away so easily.

Alan knew his many years of diligence were threatened by what he felt was nothing more than a lack of communication between different governmental departments.  Rather than sit back and hope for a positive resolution, he made plans to visit the Reserve, and his contacts in the government, in order to facilitate a solution in person.  Upon his arrival, and subsequent talks with departmental heads, he felt safe in the assumption that they truly understood the inviolate nature of the core area and the need to keep development restricted to specific zones in the Reserve extension or buffer zone, as originally agreed.

Confident in the knowledge that the Reserve was in good hands, he left the capital city of Nay Pyi Taw, for the core site.  When he arrived, and visited the headquarters of one of the agricultural concessions, he was pleased to hear they had already stopped clearing in the sanctuary, following orders from the highest executives of the company.  Although the land cleared already would most likely be put under cultivation, no additional acreage would be touched within the core site of the Reserve.

With the Sanctuary relatively intact, Alan was able to spend time visiting villages throughout the region as well as the Wildlife Police station—where he was quite impressed with the poacher’s cells (see photo).  When speaking to WCS staff and villagers, Alan was heartened to be told repeatedly about more sightings and signs of sambar deer, wild pigs, and even tigers than before, especially in the core Wildlife Sanctuary.  The number of Lisu (the best hunters in the region) passing through the area was down from an estimated 250 people last year to no more than 40 this year.  Two actual tiger sightings within the last half year and the findings of what were identified as tracks of a cub with its mother, give great hope for the future.  Another interesting development was the continued reported sightings of hog deer in the area, a highly endangered species that was not even thought to occur in HukaungValley.  All agreed that some additional camera traps should be set up to try and confirm these sightings.  This would add one more important species to the list in Hukaung.  Making the case for conservation that much stronger.

The Hukaung Valley Tiger Reserve is a complex, highly diverse biological and cultural landscape that has, and will continue to have, lots of challenges and problems.  However the reserve is the size of a small country and the problems by comparison to any other such size area can be managed and controlled.  What is much more noteworthy are the accomplishments by WCS and Forest Department staff in a relatively short time.  Guns, hunting, the sale of wildlife, and forest disturbance are all, to some extent, being controlled, particularly in the Wildlife Sanctuary and the Tigers Forever core site.  Alan believes there is a good chance of seeing tiger numbers increase in the near future.

Perhaps the most important realization Alan made on this trip is that now, more than ever, WCS is highly respected and has a high level of government support for our work.  Most Tigers Forever countries cited government backing as the greatest uncertainty for the long term success of their sites.  Alan believes this has been one of the successes of WCS’s Myanmar Program and also feels thatHukaungValley has just passed its first big test concerning that issue.  Alan is proud to be a part of this incredible conservation model. HukaungValley is a true living landscape.