Conservation in Myanmar
NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
- 26.35 96.7166667
Two-Track Mono recording
Show: Myanmar/ Burma
Date: Feb. 2003
1:06 AR- I'm in the town of Tanai. It's in the heart of the Hukawng valley. It's taken a couple of days to get here. And now from here it's all pretty much solid jungle to the border with Assam. From here north we have the Hukawng Wildlife Sanctuary, a protected area, which after I surveyed in 1999 I convinced the government to set up because it seemed to have the country's best populations of tigers and elephants and much of the large wildlife that was gone from the rest of the country. Now the government's asked me to help them set up the entire Hukawng valley, an area of about 5500 square miles, as a tiger reserve, since it seems like this area is the best place in the country left for tigers. I've been really excited about this, it's a really exciting project with potential almost unlike anything else I've ever done. However I feel incredibly frustrated at this point as well, as I've come to realize after three trips here that this area is filled with problems unlike any I've had to try to deal with. Although this wildlife sanctuary and the new proposed tiger reserve is being set up by the Myanmar government, this land is under the tentative control of the Kachin Independent Army, or the KIA. In the northern most reaches, towards the Indian border, it is also under the control of Naga groups, who have not even signed a cease-fire with the government. Right now I'm trying to play a game of balance between all of these groups in getting permission, in getting their buy-in, in getting their assistance for both my access into this area and for setting this area up for a tiger reserve. Everybody says the right things, but getting in to see people, getting into some of the most remote areas is turning out to be very problematic. Tiger teams are about to set off and go do more surveys for tigers inside the sanctuary. I learned that the KIA base, which is at the southern end of the sanctuary is now the site of some gold-mining operations. I've asked to go and see that area and I've been waiting for permits for the last two days, but so far I've been denied.
4:06 AR-Another area I'm planning to get to is by the Assam border area, a border town called Pansong. I've just learned that area is in total control of the Naga, and whatever I want to do there I have to make sure that we have permission from the Naga groups. This is an interesting exercise in conservation; it's a microcosm of what conservation is all about all over the world. It's not a difficult thing to identify incredibly special areas that should be made as parks or sanctuaries, but it is a very difficult thing to try to make certain areas into something that's truly integrated into the human landscape and something that lasts forever, or at least as far into the future as one can project. This is something that has been the biggest challenge of my life.
5:13 AR-I've spent a lot of time, I've spent a lot of my life setting up new protected areas. That's always been a challenge and it's always been a wonderful accomplishment when these things come through. I've never quite set up an area like this. A huge landscape site, nearly 6000 sq. miles. Much of it filled with jungle, much of it filled with wild elephants and tigers and clouded leopards and horn-bills and all the wonderful species of this area, but also integrate throughout several thousand people doing gold mining, rotund collection, hunting wildlife. Somehow all of this has to be incorporated into where this area, where the country's moving in the future. On top of that, on top of what the local communities are doing, we have the KIA trying to establish if not a nation anymore, at least some kind of independent identity for the Kachin people in this area. We have the Naga trying to assert their own authority and trying to promote their own identity in this area. And on top of that we have the Myanmar central government wanting to unite everybody under one umbrella. All of them claiming to want conservation, and I think all of them truly sincere in realizing that saving their natural resources is something good for their own heritage, but finding that balance to where they can truly promote conservation and yet let their people move ahead in a productive way is quite the challenge, quite the frustration.
7:29 AR-It's 6 o'clock in the morning. Everybody's just starting to wake up. We're planning on heading, finally, into the field today, after three days of waiting for permits we thought we never had to have, or we thought we already did have. But as usual it doesn't work that way in this country. I'm not quite sure how today is going to be. It' rained really hard last night. It was a really unseasonable rain. It's not supposed to rain at all this month. There are no ferry's running on the rivers. Ferry's meaning these rafts that are used to operate on the water and take these gold mining trucks back and forth. This month is supposed to be a month of such low water trucks can cross the rivers. Unfortunately they've had a lot of rain and our trucks are not jacked up high enough to cross the river so we've tried to rent a truck that can take us across. If everything goes right we have about a 12 hour ride over the Ledo road till we get to the town of Shimbooyan where there's an old U.S. WWII airstrip and then from there we go up into the mountains where we plan to establish a base so that we can go to the border of Pansong from there and then go out and visit the Naga. Many Naga villages live to the west of there. That's the plan. So if everything goes right today, which is another rarity, it's another 12-14 hour day. If something goes out of whack then I have no idea where I'll next be speaking into this microphone from, taking about those kind of circumstances. So hopefully today we'll be not only deep inside Hukawng valley, but we'll actually be up in the mountains that ring Hukawng valley and getting ready to go into some of the remote Naga villages that are up in these areas that we are trying to incorporate into a tiger reserve. But I have no idea what these Naga do, how great their hunting is, and whether it's even a feasible thing, whether they even want it and agree to it and whether it's feasible. We'll see.
10:14 FX. Truck motor
10:19 AR-We've just started our trek up the Turan River. Finally after a strange mixture of message back and forth between the Kitchun and the Pentagami and military intelligence, and the central army based in Langoon, we have gotten permission to visit the KIA headquarters inside of Hukawng valley. This is one of the most important things I need to be doing in order to secure the future of the Hukawng valley wildlife sanctuary. Technically this is the only settlement within Hukawng valley. More importantly they have a village right next to them of more than 100 people who are involved in various forms of hunting and now gold mining, since gold was recently discovered not more than a few miles away from the KIA camp. Entrance into the camp is restricted, but they seem to be welcoming us. When we talked to KIA they seem to be very much in favor of our work to control hunting and bring back wildlife into this area. In fact they even have their own signs restricting people from killing tigers and elephants, however they still let people freely do almost everything else and they don't seem to put any effort into the Leesoo, who move through their area and just seem to take anything and everything that they want. I need to discuss this with them. We need to figure out a way that we can help the KIA accomplish whatever their goals and objectives are in this valley and protect this land, protect their heritage, which they seem to be fully in favor of doing as well. I think it can be done. From all the conversations we have had with KIA people they seem eager and willing to help in any conservation and preservation effort. Of course once it comes down to any kind of restrictions that stop the harvesting of resources and the flow of money into their pockets then things change a bit. But I think compromises can be worked out because this is the KIA's land, they value, seem to value, their resources, and protecting them. And we have to specifically discuss the various hunting pressures that are just totally out of hand in this country. But KIA is expecting us, they are welcoming us. It's going to be about a 5 hour boat trip up the river, hopefully there'll be no rain because we have no protecting in this little boat. But it'll be interesting to see what comes out of this trip. I consider this trip to be the most important endeavor we are going to do in order to secure the future of the Hukawng Wildlife Sanctuary and the Hukawng valley as a whole. The government is very reticent about interfering with KIA activities and even KIA land, although technically the HWS, set up by the government is on KIA land, but we clearly need by and from both parties, form the government and from the KIA. Politically, administratively I need to lobby hard with what happens here with the central government. Realistically on the ground what happens in the day to day hunting and other activities that happen here that are slowly eating away at this valley I need to have the buy-in of the KIA. This is what conservation is all about. This is the only way conservation will succeed. If somehow all the people involved in what you're trying to conserve really view it as something that's important to them and view it as something now or in the future they can benefit from. I think people have the desire to protect the wildlife and the wild lands before them, but I think they also need to protect foremost the future of their families and themselves. Both of those things can be accomplished together, I have no doubt about it. I've already seen it done, and I know it can be done here.
15:40-21:56 Ambi. Music. Burmese rock, karaoke style.
22:14-29:25 Ambi. Same sort of music.
30:11 Ambi. Birds chirping
30:20 AR-It's early morning. The KIA base camp. It's been an eventful evening. I have meetings with all the top KIA and KIO officials. The KIO (Kachin Independence Organization) being the political wing of the KIA, the independent army. They all say the right words, they all feel strongly that this area should be protected, and that this area should be a wildlife sanctuary. I believe them, I think they're genuinely interested and concerned about the level of hunting and what is going on in their surrounding forests, the level of destruction. But, the other side to it is, is they themselves freely admit the KIA needs a source of income, they need to support their army and their infrastructure. And what they used to get most of their money from, the gem mines, in Bhutan, has now been lost to them after they signed a cease fire agreement with the government. So now they're counting on the gold mines being a major source of income. This is not good because the gold mining is an incredibly destructive activity in Hukawng valley. It's not destructive solely because it rapes the environment with these hydraulic water hoses that just wipe away the river banks and much of the forest where they're working, but it's destructive because a whole new level of hunting pops up around these gold mining camps. Hunting just to supply free meat, or cheap meat to the camps. It's just like timber camps elsewhere. And that's devastating to the wildlife on top of that even when they don't hunt much around these mining camps, deep in the jungle pop up all of the follow up activities that are associated with these vast money-making endeavors such as karaoke bars, coffee shops. The gold mining camp nearest the KIA headquarters is several hours by road or boat in from the Ledo road. We're literally in the forest here, on the edge of the wildlife sanctuary. The newest gold mine is about 10 miles in about a 3 hour walk, they tell me, inside of the forest here. Ten miles in where the only transport from this camp is by foot, or at least part way by bullock cart. There are karaoke bars, coffee shops, and the major goods flowing into the camp, aside any gold mining equipment which is needed, is alcohol, rum and beer primarily. Imagine what that does to the wildlife in a huge radius around the gold mining camp, having all through the evening karaoke and music blasting all through the jungle. Fortunately some of the higher ups in the government say that they have finally come to realize how destructive gold mining is and that within a year they will try to shut down all gold mining operations within the country. I'll wait to see that happen. But in any case we need to give them even more reason for why that should happen. By everyone's account otters are gone from the Hukawng Wildlife Sanctuary, trapped out by Leesoo hunters. Otter pelts are very valuable for the Chinese trade and they're very easy to trap.
34:52 AR-Tigers fortunately are still around almost everywhere we ask, in fact virtually everywhere we ask. What is more concern is tiger¿clearly the tiger density is nothing like it was 10 or 20 years ago. People were afraid to walk in the jungle because of the tigers. Now they know the tigers are around but now they know that the tigers are around, but they know that their densities are low enough that and any kind of interaction isn't frequent enough so that it doesn't bother them. But, what is much more concerning to me is how infrequent the sign seems to be of the tigers food: samba deer, wild pig, barking deer, other kinds of food items that the tigers clearly need to survive. When we get our camera trap photos back I'm shocked to see that we actually have numerous good photos of tigers, and much less of tiger prey items. I've never seen this before. What I fear¿we need to do much more surveying, much more trapping. This area's so vast that I believe there are still large numbers of everything in here. Not nearly what it was, not nearly what it should be, but still enough to come back, and that's my hope. I think that what I'm seeing here might be a population that is cresting, a tiger population, a predator population that is cresting and about to go into steep decline because of lack of prey abundance and increasing lack of prey abundance, a very rapid drop in prey abundance which will be followed by a drop in tiger densities. But, having said that, I also think we are fortunate stepping in at a time when if the government and the KIA and everybody involved in this area really is concerned enough to take steps and induce measures to counteract some of this hunting, it doesn't even have to be all, but mainly hunting for the commercial trade, we can bring everything back. We don't have to bring it back to the levels of 50 years ago, I'm not sure we'd even want to, but we can bring it back to the premier tiger and elephant sight in the country, and maybe even in the region. As I said, what we have going for us here, which is not common most other places, is the vast amount of wild forest tracks still existing. Of course that brings along with it an attitude that there's plenty of time, that there's plenty of wildlife still left. However, people here seem to be wiser than in many other places that I've been. The people living in the forest, the local hunters to government officials in Yangon clearly realize that wildlife abundance is dropping drastically in numbers and they are clearly proud of their wildlife and wild land heritage and don't want to completely lose it. So there is a sense here that they want to do something, but they don't quite know how to do something which allows them to balance socio-economic development, helping local people with saving wildlife and wild land. The good thing is I know how to do it.
39:09 AR-We've got enough failures, we've got enough experiences in other places in the world, we've got enough places where we've started too late, and we even have enough success stories some places where given a situation like this where we can really get something done. And I know we will. This will be one of the premier wild sites in all of Asia in the future, I guarantee that. I guarantee it because it's all set up to go. The will is here but not the know-how. If we stick to this one, if the international community helps and stops playing politics with this country when it comes to things like conservation then we can really make something here, make something for future generations to be really, really proud of. A wild area that's representative of what the world was like, and may never be again. We can still have parts of the world where people and wildlife can live together.
40:26-43:02 Ambi. Birds (faint)
43:04-46:12 Ambi. Guitar music. This is in native language of Myanmar.
46:18-47:14 Ambi. People talking, birds chirping.
47:15-50:51 Ambi. More guitar-good!
51:10-52:08 Ambi. Woman singing acapella in native tongue. Pretty.
52:31-53:37 Ambi. Woman sings more.
53:40-55:25 Ambi. Driving, people talking in background, sounds like getting out of car.
55:14 FX. Car honk