WHERE TIGERS ROAM FREE
By: Hpone Thant
Once upon a time tigers were common in Myanmar jungles. Tigers featured in many Myanmar legends and folktales. In the nat or spirit shrines where many Myanmar people pray there are often life-size statues of tigers beside their nat masters. A story for the children tells of the contest between a wise rabbit and a crafty tiger. The tiger also featured in the customs and traditions of the hill tribes. Many hill tribes consider killing a tiger a mark of courage. The Naga people that live on the high mountains on the border with India proudly wear tiger claws and fangs as compulsory ornaments on their ceremonial costumes. Also, in many East Asian traditional medicine tiger parts are used, whether rightly or wrongly, for their therapeutic and also for aphrodisiac properties! We hear of tiger hunts organized by the British colonial officials during their stay here. As it is tigers command both respect and fear from the humans.
But the tiger numbers had dwindled. The main reason is the impact of humans, both directly and indirectly, on these creatures and their habitats.
Myanmar is considered one of the hotspots of the world's biological diversity by the IUCN and many new species, both botanical and zoological are still being discovered here. On a recent tiger survey the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) of U.S.A found evidence of tigers roaming in the wild in the Hukaung Valley.
Situated in the North West portion of Myanmar Hukaung Valley was once known as Death Valley by the Allied Forces in World War II. This is also where the famous Stillwell Road, or called locally as Ledo Road, lies. This road, beginning in Ledo in India and ending on the Myanmar-China border, was to be the strategic road to supply the Chinese nationalist forces fighting the Japanese in China. For the Allied Forces it was a place infested with malaria- carrying mosquitoes, dangerous animals, unknown number of poisonous reptiles and other creepy crawly things. Local stories tell of how bridges collapsed under the weight of huge snakes or how aircrafts were brought in to bomb the monster reptiles.
Actually it is a green paradise set in the deepest jungle. It is a place where cormorants fish on the streams and gibbons whoop freely in the wild. A place where the air turns cool and ferns drip moisture when the high Kumon peaks turns from green to purple and darken slowly as the sun sinks in the west. But now this once infamous place had become the most important site to preserve the tiger population in Myanmar. This valley was to become the heart of more than 6000 square miles area that was being proposed as the world’s largest tiger reserve.
In November 2002, The Wildlife Conservation Society and the Myanmar Forest Department,with the financial support of US Fish and Wildlife Service, set up camp along a stream 15 miles north of Tanaing in the Kachin State. Team leader Dr. Antony Lynam, an associate zoologist with WCS and also its Thailand Programme Director told us, "The aim was to find out how many tigers are still left here, where they normally occur and other factors that threaten their survival. Also the aim was to come up with a conservation plan that will accommodate both the needs of the local people and the tigers"
Before the present expedition was mounted Dr. Alan Rabinowitz and U Saw Tun Khaing from WCS and personnel from the Forest Department had done two surveys in 1999 and 2001 respectively. And finally Hukaung Valley was chosen to be the core site of the proposed tiger reserve in Myanmar because it was determined that this is one of the last places in Myanmar with wild tigers.
Dr. Tony Lynam and his team of forest rangers trekked along streambeds and animal trails. Relying on 1942 vintage topographical maps the team bulled through dense bamboo and cane breaks, slid down steep slopes and climbed up even steeper valleys to set up their trap cameras. These trap cameras would be triggered by any motion within their perspective areas and hoped to capture a live tiger image on at least one of these.
And they were not disappointed. The cameras had captured six images of two tigers plus 32 other animal species that share their habitat: wild elephants, leopards, wild boars, hogs deer, gaurs, green peafowls, bears etc. Dr. Lynam and his team were visually able to identify positively two tigers by their differences in stripe patterns. "Tiger have unique stripe patterns individually. No two tigers have the same pattern", Dr. Lynam said. "We estimate that there could be from 80 to 100 tigers in the new Hukauang Valley Tiger Reserve. Sadly however the trap cameras also recorded as many hunters as they did of the animals", he continued. By law tigers are protected. However, hunting on their prey species is widespread. Wildlife meat is freely available at the Tanaing market, as well as horns and antlers. Jackets made of serow and muntjac hides are in great demand even in towns as far away as Myitkyina and Mandalay. So outside of the direct killing of tigers the disappearance of the prey species is also one of the basic factors that tigers had dwindled in numbers.
Now the main challenge for the authorities in Myanmar would be to formulate a programme to better understand how hunting and wildlife trade is effecting the tiger population and train rangers and local hunters to boost defenses against poaching and to serve as guides. The team also recognizes the need to educate the local populace on nature and conservation. Then also age old customs and traditions must be gradually won over.
Currently the Chitwan National Park in Nepal, is the premier location for the tourists interested in observing these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat. Hukaung Valley was established as a Wildlife Sanctuary in 1999 but in March,2004 the government upgraded it into a tiger reserve. With further infrastructure developments and better accessibility the hope is that in the near future the Hukaung Tiger Reserve would rival the Chitwan Park. But as Tony said in his closing remarks "it's a long and exciting road that lies ahead of us".