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Myanmar; Hukaung Valley Tiger Reserve  

NPR/NGS Radio Expeditions
4 Mar 2004

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NPRINGS RADIO EXPEDITIONS
Myanmar Tiger Refuge: Hukaung Valley
Reporter: Renee Montagne
Engineer:
ALAN RABINOWITZ Interview:

6:16 A-This is an interesting exercise in conservation, it's a microcosm of what conservation is about all over the world. It's not a difficult thing to identify incredibly special areas that should be made into parks or sanctuaries, but it is a very difficult thing to try to make protected area ...(sound stopped)
Renee speaks about where she wants interview to go, what they're doing.
7:36 R-Welcome. A-Welcome, thank you, it's a pleasure to be here. R-You say this is the biggest challenge of your life. Tell us what's at stake here. A-There's a lot at stake. It is the largest challenge which I've ever undertaken. A lot of people say that can't be possible given all of the other things which I've done and that I'm doing, but every time I take on a new challenge it seems it gets only larger. What's at stake here is that the creation of what will be the largest tiger preserve in the world and clearly one of the largest protected areas in the world. An area nearly the size of Vermont at 8000 sq miles, that will protect not only one of the regions most important remaining population of tigers, but a whole host of other wildlife that's increasingly becoming endangered throughout Asia, such as Asian elephants, and clouded leopards and Asiatic leopards, and wild dogs. This area has the potential to be the nucleus for seeding other areas throughout both Myanmar and the Indo-China region if we get other pieces of protected areas around this large landscape site to also be protected. R-You know I just...go ahead.
9:19 A-Most of the forest remaining in both Myanmar and Indo-China are what we call empty forests. They look beautiful on the surface, but most of their larger wildlife, their tigers, their leopards, even their elephants, are long gone because of hunting pressures. We could bring them back in these areas, but in order to do that we need some really good protected areas, which are the homes of these remaining tiger populations.
9:49 R-Let me just ask you to give us a sense of how big this area is that the government of Myanmar is looking to set aside. A-The area's huge. Now there are two areas we are actually talking about. One area will actually be increased. When I first went into this area I asked the government to designate a core site which had nobody living in it in this Hukaung Valley of2500 sq miles. Still a huge area by anybody's measurements. The government did that. The government designated 2500 sq miles in the Hukaung Valley as a wildlife sanctuary for tigers and their prey species. But then the government themselves turned around in response to surveys we were doing about tigers, showing that tigers had nearly disappeared from the rest of Myanmar, saying why don't we expand that area to the entire valley. Now I never would have imagined that any government would be suggesting to protect 8000 sq miles, but they did, and I readily agree. The only problem now is that within this 8000 sq miles, not only do we have massive areas of forest with tigers and elephants, but we also have several tens of thousands of people living in certain parts of this valley that will remain there that we also somehow have to incorporate within this protected landscape.
11 :38 R-I'm going to just say one thing to make sure that it's in here that the size that sort of sq mileage we're talking about something the size of Vermont. A-This is 8000 sq miles, which is almost the size of VT. Right. R-Now back to where you ended, you said there were lots of people living in this valley. Among them are some powerful political forcers. Among them is, I gather, are a rebel group. Well, I'll let you do it. Among them are some political forces. There's a rebel group that's from there and has controlled parts of the valley
12:38 A-This is.. when I say that this is the greatest conservation challenge of my life, part of the reason for that is not the size of the protected area, but the complexity of making this protected area work. B/c it involves a balancing act of many dif groups of people living inside this valley, but the reason I agreed to do it with this government, and the reason I think it's so important, is because this really is a model for the future of conservation. Animals like tigers and elephants, the largest carnivores and mammals on Earth, they are not going to survive if their future is just in isolated pockets of very hardcore protected areas. We've got to find a way to where we can create landscapes of both core protected areas and places where people live and both elements of that equation can be balanced. Now a lot of people talk about that, it's been talked about for years, but very ,very few people try to do it on the ground. This tiger reserve will be a model for that. Inside of this reserve we have several ethnic groups. We have Banaga in the North, we have Lisu people, we have thousands of transient gold miners which have been trying to exploit pockets of gold that have recently been found in this valley, and perhaps most importantly we have the Katchin Independent Army base, inside this valley. Now these people have been there for many years. They are a separate ethnic group, they have signed a peace treaty with the gov so there's very cordial relationships with the gov at this point, but they do have some degree of autonomy over this area. So balancing this means getting permission from the Katchin Independent Army, which we've already done, and getting permission from the central gov. That is difficult in itself, but once that's done the real difficulty comes in making it a reality. Just the fact that the Katchin Army, who have headquarters, guns, and arms, inside of this valley, just because they have signed off on it and say they want to protect the wildlife of this valley, and just because the central gov have signed off on it and the other ethnic groups like the Naga and the Lisu, doesn't then translate into conservation. Then the difficult part comes of really making it worthwhile for these people to be living around or within this tiger reserve. And that can be done. We can make it so that it's beneficial for the tigers and the other species and so that it's beneficial for the people as well. We can give them and start helping them with projects and activities which they haven't had access to previously and make their lives better as well as save tigers and other wildlife.
16:14 This could be a real model for the world on how to go about conservation in some of these remote areas left, which have both people and wildlife living in them.

R-Alan I want to get in this, but I want to go way, way back in this interview to because I want to use some more tape, where you are going up the Tarung River. At this point we don't know who the KAI is or that they've signed off on it. Let me just back up and mentally get yourself back further. You talk about some of the other issues, you've got a place as big as VT that you are trying to turn into a tiger reserve. You brought back some tape that you recorded on a rainy morning last fall, a few months back. I'd like you to tell us exactly where you were going, you were setting out to talk to some people in the valley who's permission you really needed to get this reserve going and to make it a success.

17:57~Boy, that was some trip deep inside the heart of the valley is the headquarters called the KIA. They rule this valley. They have signed peace treaties with the central gov of Myanmar, but they also have some degree of autonomy over the resources in this valley. So I knew it was imperative, even if we had gotten this area signed into a tiger reserve by the central gov, I knew it was imperative that we had agreement and sign-off by the KIA, who not only had a large base inside of the valley, but also have weapons and also do some hunting and killing of wildlife, which they feel they need to do to survive, but that are also detrimental to what we were trying to do. R-And also allow a little gold-mining. A-And they are also allowing, the KIA is also allowing one of their own gold mines to be operating, which is not very good for the valley. So we needed to talk to them about all of these different things. I had no idea what I would encounter. I had no idea, first of all it took me quite a while to get permission by the gov just to be allowed to go in there. The KIA themselves when we contacted them, were openly friendly and invited us back in there, but then I had to get permission from the central government to travel back in there. That took a while because they weren't very open to the idea, but then they eventually allowed me to go back there. When I was on a boat, traveling to go back there.
19:51 R-Okay, I'm going to stop you right there cause we can play the tape. You might as well hear it so you know what to say right afterword. Well, let's play that tape of you beginning this journey, and Patrick, it's tape # 2.
20:26 Boat motor starts. We've just started our trip up the Turung River, after a strange mixture of messages back and forth from the KIA and the central army based in Rangun, we've gotten permission to visit the KIA headquarters inside of Hukaung Valley. This is one of the most imp things need to be doing in order to secure the future of the Hukaung Valley wildlife sanctuary, technically this is the only sanctuary within the Hukaung Valley. More imp they have a village next to them of about a hundred plus people who are involved in various forms of hunting and now gold mining, since gold has recently been discovered no more than a few miles from the KIA camp. Entrance into the camp is restricted, but they seem to be welcoming us. When we talk to KIA they seem to be very much in favor of the wildlife sanctuary and very much in favor of our work to control hunt ...
21:53 R-Okay, so, "they seem to be welcoming us" is probably how it would end. So what happened?
22:02 A - I was playing over so many scenarios in my mind as we were going up there because, though I knew the KIA was on the surface welcoming us, and that they gave a lot of lip service in the fact that they did protect wildlife and that they taught their children to respect wildlife, the fact remained, and I was going to show them, that we had dozens of camera trap photos, cameras we had placed in the forest, in order to survey for the tigers, we had dozens of photos showing KIA passing by with guns, clearly hunting and in a couple of cases, actually carrying wildlife parts, or meat, or dead animals so this was something it was clearly a tricky thing, acknowledging that they were in favor of what we were doing, but also showing that we knew what their people were actually doing when they were deep inside of the forest and that while we didn't say we disapproved of it because we knew they were trying to live, I was interested in trying to find some balance to where we could substitute whatever they were hunting for, be it food or protein needs, or maybe they were selling the wildlife in the local market, possibly we could help them in substituting those needs, and meeting those needs in other ways so we could protect the wildlife.
23:46 R-They took, I take it, the pictures in stride. When you pulled out the pics showing their own people doing what they claimed they weren't doing ...
23:59 A - I remember that instance ¬clearly because as soon as I showed them pics of their people doing what they said they didn't do they got very somber faced, they started talking to each other in Katchin, which we did not understand at all, and then they turned to me and said in English, well you just don't understand how things are back here. Now I often hear that when people don't like what I have to tell them in other countries, but to a point it's also true and I acknowledged I know I don't understand what you have to deal with and what you have to go through back here, but I also want you to understand what we clearly do know what's going on back here and it's not just the Katchin hunting wildlife, it's all of the dif ethnic groups, but their own I were as well when they said that they weren't and they weren't the best protectors of the wildlife. 0 I said we just need to work together. Would you agree that if this area becomes a tiger preserve, would you work with the Naga, with the Lisu, with the central gov., with our own people in discussing how we can truly be protecting this area, and you working on the side of wildlife while we somehow meet whatever needs you have. And they agreed to that and that's the most I could have hoped for he next step will come later when we actually (interruption from Rene~ he next step will come In the coming months as we now start management of this tiger reserve
25:56 R-Let's move briefly back in time momentarily. Let's go to Rangun, the capitol, Myanmar is a country that most Americans know as a brutal military dictatorship. What was your experience approaching this gov, which in this case appears to be very progressive. A-People often ask me political questions because I'm dealing with a country that often gets nothing but bad press in the Int'l media and all I can ever say, there are many things I can never speak to in the u.s. or in any other country I have ever worked because I don't see those components of what a country does, but I can speak to my own experiences and places where I've been in Myanmar. The gov. has been very receptive. I've worked in Myanmar now 10 years, and in those 10 years the gov has been incredibly receptive, more receptive than most other governments I've ever worked with in terms of conservation and wanting to save wildlife. Now people would say that's just a story I'm giving them, but in those 10 years that I've worked with them, they have increased partly on my and others advice to them from our research and surveys, they've increased the protected areas system from one of the lowest in the world under .1 % to nearly 5% of their land area. That's a huge increase in terms of thousands and thousands of sq miles of land being protected and they didn't only protect it on paper, they then committed themselves to sending staff there, drawing boundaries, doing everything the right way, and everything we have set up over the last 10 years now have staff there which are trying to do conservation work with the local people. The other thing that the gov mandated to me was that if we recommended a protected area, we cannot mandate in our management strategy for the area that the local people, if there are any local people in the area we cannot recommend they be moved or relocated. We need to devise management strategies for these protected areas which take into account local people and somehow help them and also helping wildlife. That was mandated by the gov. I've never given the gov, people can say what they want about the gov reasons for doing this, but 1 really have seen no other reason for doing than a true interest in trying to protect and save some of these incredibly beautiful natural lands that this country has.
29:11 R-Let's playa final excerpt from your field notes, a little bit like an audio diary. You're sitting ...Let's play another final excerpt from your field notes. It sort of feels like an audio diary because your talking to yourself about what you feel about how this whole project has been received. Actually, you don't have to say anything, we'll play the tape, it starts with people.
30: 17 A-However people here seem to be wiser than in many other places where I've been. The people. Are living in the forest ...there's plenty of wildlife sti111eft. However people here seem to be wiser than in many other places where I've been. The people living in the forest, everyone from local hunters, officials, and the Rangun, clearly realize wildlife is dropping, wildlife abundance is dropping rapidly and they are clearly proud of their wildlife and wildland 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 that can balance socio-economic development, helping local people with saving wildlife and wildland. The good thing is 1 know how to do it. We've got enough failures, we've got...
31:37 R-That's enough. A-Boy, I'm arrogant, aren't I? I'm so relaxed back there it's so clear to me how much more relaxed I am when 1 come out to the cities.
32:04 R-So Ran goon or Yawn one is how it's pronounced these days? A-Ya, Yawngone. R-How do you do it? When 1 say 1 know how to do it, 1 mean it, and it's not brain surgery either. Balancing, it's not always possible. When you encounter these rare situations where you have large areas with a lot of wildlife left, and local people, but the density of their endeavors have not reached a point where there's an impossible balance between what they desire to be doing and what the wildlife needs. If you haven't reached a point where even now at this point in the last few years, tens of thousands of people in this valley, they're doing very small scale endeavors such as gold mining, and 1 mean gold mining on very small scale levels such as panning or bringing in hydraulic pumps and destroying mtns in order to get the gold, but these things are transient, these people are transient. That's something that can be dealt with now. There are other people who wi11live in this valley forever, who are doing slash-and-burn agriculture, who are collecting non¬-timber forest products such as bamboo and rattan, who are hunting wildlife which tigers need, such as Samba deer and wild bore for their own meat and protein needs. Those kind of issues can be very easily addressed. We can set people up raising their own livestock. It's not that they don't want to or don't know how to, they just haven't needed to. So in places inside of this valley where samba deer and wild bore are selling for less than chicken, which need to be shipped in. We can start local people on raising pigs and chicken. They've been harvesting non-timber forest products such as bamboo and rattan for literally decades. Now they're doing it at such an accelerated pace because more people are coming in that these products are almost gone from the forest. We can in fact, and will, bring in people to help show them how to do domestic rattan and bamboo cultivation so that they can actually have ongoing domestic plantations of very saleable products that outsiders want. They're doing slash-and-burn agriculture only because that's what tradition has dictated and that's what they know to be doing. We can and will bring in specialists to show them how they can better use their lands, grow better crops on their land areas. There are things which are very well know now at this point in time which can be done to better these peoples lives in this valley, as well as protect the existing forest and the prey and the carnivores of this forest so that both win in the end.
35:49 Now it's not a paradise. It's very easy to just be talking about that and not talking about the other side of things, which is that, also, in any situation you have human beings in competing interests you also need laws in place where people cannot go into the forests and kill tigers and you also need enforcement of those laws. You will have to have good enforcement to where sometimes local people will be arrested or punished for breaking the law and that will also occur on the development side people can benefit and wildlife can benefit.
36:44 R-Move forward in time, you were going back to Myanmar in a couple of days. (they figure out he's going back on the 15th) R-to do what, to get this started? A-I will be going back to either, right now the tiger reserve has been approved by the gov, the boundaries have been drawn, there's actually been protection and enforcement of2500 sq miles, which had already been designated before this, but we are still waiting for the final signoff, just the I's to be dotted and the t's to be crossed for this 8000 sq mile tiger reserve.
37:57 R-Are you waiting and holding your breath? A-I'm holding my breath so much that I'm turning blue by the day. It's imminent, the gov officials tell me it's imm, I've gotten word from gov it's imm, it's just normal beauracracy, red tape, that is holding it up, in actual fact it's occurring much faster than it normally would have to try and fast track this tiger reserve because of all the neg influences occurring inside the area. Normally it would take a couple of years to get it signed off. We've been trying to get it signed off within the past year, and this will be a very quick sign off because I think it will happen any day now.
39:21 R-The gold rush began in the Hukaung valley and you describe in your article in Nat. Geo. And you describe in your article the landscape that you first knew and the scene when you first went back.

39:50 A-Yes, I first entered the Hukaung valley in 1999. The major difference was the road that bisects the valley, called the Lido or the Stillwell road, depending on who you talk to, was essentially non-functional at that time, you couldn't access that road because the bridges had been destroyed, either due to time or the KIA had destroyed them, so the only access into the heart of the valley past a certain point was by foot, therefore the interior of the valley was relatively few people living inside and was very pristine. We could see elephant tracks and tiger tracks right along the old Lido road. In the time I first surveyed there in 1999 and gotten the core area preserved and when I went back in 2001, the roads had been opened, the bridges rebuilt, people had complete access right into the valley, right into the valley, right into the border with a sum. Gold had always been known in the valley, but people couldn't exploit it, just like the non-timber forest products, the same thing with rattan and bamboo and other sources, but because there was no road access into the valley they were not able to really exploit these resources. Once bridges got fixed they were able to exploit these resources.

41 :55 R-So where you had seen tiger tracks just a couple of years before, what was there now? Where I had seen tiger tracks I saw big trucks carrying dozens and dozens of people or carrying pcv pipe or barrels of oil for the motors, that's what I saw instead of tiger tracks or leopard tracks. Now the tigers and leopards were still there, but they were deep in the forest, they were no longer the quiet of that valley, the peacefulness, the serenity had long been broken since the bridges had been rebuilt by the clamor of the trucks by the people. And the...
R-And the karaoke bars. A-And the karaoke bars, there were actually karaoke bars in the mining camps, inside of the jungle. There was an amazing site to be walking through the jungle and see karaoke coming from an area where we had photographed tigers not days before (laughs) so the tigers got an introduction to karaoke as well. R-Ya, I wonder nocturnal creatures, what sort of scenes they were missing drowned out by karaoke. We
are running out of time, running out of time in the best sense. It's been a great conversation, but let me return to the end here to step into a fantasy world which we help will be a real world in the next few weeks.

43:38 R-Now you were going back to Myanmar in just a couple of days and I imagine it will be a rather joyous trip for you because the gov has signed off, has put it's name, because the gov has officially signed off on this tiger reserve.
44:03 A-This will be a very joyous trip, but it will also be the start of all the really, really hard work. It will be a trip where I congratulate the gov for their foresight in granting into law such a huge area, the world's largest area tiger reserve, which will help save the tigers not only in their country but will hopefully help tigers range-wide. But, also, once all the pats on the back and congrats are taken care of, then we will sit down and start talking about serious matters, such as how do you go about managing, fulfilling promises and managing the worlds largest tiger reserve with the many interests and ethnic groups living inside in this vast area of tigers and other wildlife. And we will sit down and talk about funds, which I will bring to the table, talk about management strategies, talk about how I and the wildlife conserv soc will be working together with the forest dept. over the next 10 yrs, 20 yrs, indefinitely to make this worlds largest tiger reserve not only a reality for tigers, but a model of conservation, of really how we can show that animals like tigers and elephants can live with people in a landscape that incl. Humans and natural systems so that both can benefit.
46:59 R-You are going back to Myanmar in a couple of days to hopefully see about getting this signed off on officially, even though the gov's committed to this?
A-Yes, the preserve is there, we have already surveyed it, we know the boundaries, the gov has agreed ...
R-You are going back in a couple of days and this will be, what, a joyous trip?
A-I hope it will be a joyous trip, the reserve is in place, the gov has approved it, but by law we cannot start active management of this larger 8000 sq miles until the 1's are dotted and the t's are crossed. Until we get the final signature by the Minister of Forestry of the document. What is holding it up now is simply it appears to be beauracratic red tape, but I expect it to be done any day now, and once that is done it will be a very joyous trip because then I can congratulate the gov what we've done to put this into place, and then we can sit down and begin to discuss the much more diff task of manage and protecting and making this tiger preserve a reality so that both the animals benefit and the local people living in this area benefit as well.
49:07 R-Alan Rabinowitz thank you very much for talking with us.
50:04 R-Describe for us the area. Take us there, give us a feeling of what it's like to be there.
A-Well the Hukaung Valley is almost like a vast swamp land in the rainy season. You would call almost a flooded forest. That is one of the reasons it has maintained such a low population density. Why a lot more people don't exist in those forest areas and why wildlife still thrives and exists back there. It's a very inhospitable place. In fact, when they were building the Lido road during WWII, it was called the valley of death. So many people died back there from malaria and other reasons, it's still a very harsh valley. Especially in the rainy season. That's been very good for us. It's controlled human movement, and what people could do, even if they wanted to with access, and it supports wildlife. Further into the valley, there are mtns bordering Asam, bordering India, those mtns. Are very very rugged, also somewhat inhospitable and difficult and that's controlled human movements and pop pressures also. So the valley, in some ways it's a beautiful place, it's almost this jungle paradise place on the surface, but if you stay in there long enough it can be a very harsh, dangerous place to live. That's been to our advantage and it's allowed that place to still exist when I first got there in 1999. There aren't many places left on Earth the size of 8000 sq miles, which have relatively few people and abundant wildlife and forest. There are often reasons for that and that's why, it's a very rugged, harsh place.

R-Okay, thanks

52:59 R-Alan Rabinowitz is director of the Wildlife Conservation Society Science and Exploration program ... for Radio Expeditions, I'm Renee Montagne.
End

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