IS IT A HINMYO??
By Hpone Thant
Checking out wild animal spoor.
"Sir, I think a hinmyo approached our camp last night" the leader of our team of
forest rangers excitedly said to me, poking his head into my tent. "Say again?"
I groggily replied, as the cobwebs had not been cleared from my brains
completely, to be so notified at the crack of dawn. Hinmyo is the traditional
name in Myanmar given to tigers by all the folks living in the jungle. The
village people believe that if you call a tiger a tiger the guardian Nats would
not like it and in many places snakes are called, "Long Creatures" Maybe it is
just superstition but who knows the mysterious ways of the jungle!
The United Kingdom based Scientific Exploration Society (S.E.S) was mounting a
comprehensive survey in the Alaung Daw Kathapa National Park with a view to
present suggestions to the relevant authorities on upgrading it to international
standards. In collaboration with the Forest Department under the Ministry of
Forestry, S.E.S had gathered a varied group of resource persons and nature
lovers divided into small groups to explore the Park and each group was
delegated a specific objective. The Expedition members were formed in companies:
Group Alpha, Baker, Charlie and Delta etc.
Alaung Daw Kathapa National Park is one of the most famous of destinations for
nature lovers as well as for Buddhist pilgrims. The Park is in Yinmabin Township
of the Sagaing Division and is a well forested area, situated to the west of the
Lower Chindwin and Myittha valleys and comprises the Patolon and Taungdwin
The total area of the Park is 620.32 sq miles. The Park consists of the Patalon
and Taungdwin River Valleys and these valleys are separated from each other by
north to south running ridges. These ridges have many steep escarpments. The
elevation of the Park varies from 670 feet to 4265 feet with an average of 3000
feet. The highest point is the Hlaingma Mountain at 4265 feet. The Park is
drained by a number of tributaries of the Potalon River, notably the Petpa and
Taungdwin creeks. The Potalon River empties into the Chindwin River which itself
is the main tributary of the Ayeyarwady River.
Elephants are the only means
of transport inside the Park.
Major rainfall occurs between May and October and is heaviest in August and
September. The Western Chin Hills greatly influences the rainfall and the annual
rainfall is around 1500mm. Even in some dry years the rainfall is reduced to
around 750mm. The temperature in the Park varies from 10°C with the highest
recorded at 41°C. The humidity averages around 72%.
The Park is accessible by road only. One way is to cross the Chindwin River at
Monywa by ferry or cross the Chindwin by the Sinbyushin Bridge at Chaung Oo. The
best time to visit the Park is from late January to before the Myanmar New Year
in April. Come early and you cannot cross the Chaung Ma Gyi Creek which has not
subsided or come late and get trapped by the monsoon. Even the monks at the
monastery depart for Kabaing at the edge of the Park during the rains.
A Group of scientists at Alaung Daw
Kathapa ready to begin thir survey.
The Buddhist pilgrims usually visit the Park to pay homage to one of the
disciples of Lord Buddha, Shin Maha Kathapa, whose sarcophagus is said to be
lying inside the cave in the Park and hence it is the origin of the Park's name.
Also, on the Full moon Day of Tabodwe (February), the presiding monk of nearby
Pho Win Taung Monastery organizes an annual ceremony to prepare Hta ma ne or
cooked glutinous rice offering to the monks and pilgrims visiting the holy
The cave where this holy relic is said to be buried, is about 45 minutes' walk
from the Log Cabin Camp along a narrow bridle path, or an elephant can take you
there in just about 20 minutes. A steep ladder takes you down into the main
cave, dark and damp. There you will find an entrance to another smaller cave
where the body of Kathapa is said to be. But the cave is blocked with a boulder
and many pilgrims sit in front to worship. They place gold leaves on this
boulder. Legends say that inside the cave and beside the sarcophagus, are
stacked so many offerings of gold and gems that once upon a time a man went in
and was so overcome with temptation that he could not find the way back out of
the cave. Curiously, an attendant will point out the shape of a small footprint
way out on a narrow ledge overlooking the gorge."There was a young boy who
accompanied this person into the cave but being a child he was not overcome with
greed when he saw the riches. So he was able to escape through a narrow opening
and here you see his footprints" the attendant explained. Well, the small
indentation in the rock is similar to a child's feet and maybe the story is
true! And since that time the cave has been blocked.
But for the nature-lovers, it is the rich bio-diversity that draws them to the
Park. The Park possesses wildlife such as tsaings (Bos banteng), gaurs (Bos
gaurus), sambar (Cervus unicolor), wild elephants, black bears, porcupines plus
troops of monkeys etc. Birdlife is also varied with hornbills, woodpeckers,
laughing thrushes, babblers, orioles, parakeets, barbets etc. Reptiles are also
numerous. It is not uncommon to find bears up on the trees hunting for honey.
Leopards are plentiful in the Park. Once, by chance, together with a Japanese
photographer we had caught on film a family of leopards feasting on a kill. But
that's another story!
One night S.E.S's Chairman Col John Blashford-Snell (J.B.S), a retired colonel
from the British Royal Engineers, announced "Tomorrow Group Charlie will head
for Kuzaik at sunup, so please be ready to start in time". Kuzaik is situated
about five days’ march, in the northeastern direction from the base camp. The
group that was to go with J.B.S comprised of a medical doctor, an elephant
management expert, an ornithologists, a zoologist plus two pack elephants and
their oozies (handlers) and some forest rangers.
By dawn of the next day the Log Cabin Camp that was our base was a busy hive.
The different groups that were to leave camp on their assigned tasks were
already up and about. Baggage had to be carefully divided and loaded onto the
pack animals: rice, oil, pots and pans as well as enough potable water for all
the participants as the round trip would take about 5 to 6 days. Meals were to
be cooked at rest stops. All the members of the group were to walk, except in
emergencies. That was the strict rule.
Tigers are extremely rare now
in the country.
J.B.S led Group Charlie as we marched out of camp, followed
by the elephants. Along the way, vegetation studies were carried out to
determine the forest type. Habitat, animal and birdlife were also carefully
This area west of the Chindwin River was the scene of many pitched battles
between the Japanese and the Allied Forces during World War II. Another
objective of the expedition was to hunt for the remains of Allied pilots and to
send the remains to be buried properly at the Commonwealth War Cemetery in
Yangon and any news about Allied warplane wrecks were eagerly sought.
Other groups in the expedition had their own routes mapped out and they too set
out on their assigned objectives. Some were to study the feasibility of
introducing solar cookers to the families of the elephant handlers and also to
assist in elephant management practices. Another group provided basic healthcare
to the villagers and also gave talks on elementary hygiene and sanitation.
One memorable moment was opening a bird watching tower on the banks of the
Potalon River. David Shepard Conservation Foundation (DSCF) and other sponsors
from the United Kingdom had donated funds for the construction of the
bird-watching tower as well as to supply camping gear and carpentry tools for
the rangers at Alaung Daw Kathapa National Park. A master carpenter from U.K was
with the expedition and he led the locals as well as the expedition members in
constructing this tower, and it was a proud moment when the David Shepard Tower
was officially opened.
Our Group Charlie was kept busy during the day. J.B.S was the typical British
Army type, keeping everyone on their toes when not at parade rest! Lunch stops
were under the shade of towering trees and beside bubbling brooks reminding us
of the poem "The Brook" from our school days.
But the evenings were fun. When camp was pitched for the night, usually beside a
running stream, the accompanying rangers and oozies doubled as cooks also. Most
nights the meal was rice cooked in bamboo stems, what is known as hke tan chi
tauk with stir-fried fresh vegetables. Rice is put into a short hollow bamboo
stem with a little water, then the top was plugged with dried leaves or straws
and the bamboo placed next to the fire. When enough time has passed the scorched
bamboo was peeled back to expose the fragrant rice, ready to eat. If the rangers
were lucky enough to have bagged a jungle fowl or caught a fish it gave some
variety but normally it was canned sardines or chicken sausages. Sections of
bamboos made good drinking cups. A bonfire was kept burning in the centre to
provide warmth and light. Even before the night sky fills up with twinkling
stars everybody was fast asleep, tired out from the day's exertions.
At the opening ceremony of
David Shepard Tower.
After four days' march the group was near exhaustion. That
was when the men on sentry felt the presence of the tiger and the story of the
close encounter with the hinmyo was born. Tired and heavy with food everyone had
fallen asleep as soon their heads touch the ground except for our trusty rangers
who stood sentry duty around our campsite. A bird known as nget hku has a
symbiotic relation with the tiger, and is known to accompany it on the hunt.
This bird scouts ahead and warns the tiger of any lurking dangers and also acts
as a scavenger of what is left over from the kill. The rangers heard the cry of
this bird in the night and had deduced that there could be a tiger on the hunt.
The group carefully searched the surroundings. Someone called out excitedly, "
Come here, there are some tracks here. Looks like a big cat". And sure enough,
among the many signs of small animals we saw that there were also some
footprints of a large cat on the soft sand near the stream. Presumably a large
cat had come down to drink near our camp but seeing the bonfire had vanished
again into the forest.
Most say there are no tigers in the Alaung Daw Kathapa National Park and that it
would be a very rare and exceptional chance to meet one on a hunt. But whatever
it is there was an animal with catlike paws that approached our camp in the
night and it certainly gave our group a very exciting camp-fire story that would
be retold time and again.
Hpone Thant was a member of the Expedition and is also a regular contributor of
articles on the culture and traditions and wildlife of the country to various
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org