Myanmar – The Tiger’s Last Hope?

portrait_of_a_tiger

photo by Stephen Mills

Today I smelled a tiger, saw numerous footprints, and heard one growl very nearby. I had never imagined myself to be so much of a wildlife-tracking fan, but this morning’s walk through Bardiya National Park in Western Nepal was absolutely elating.

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Of course actually spotting wildlife when one is on foot is a dubious matter, a realisation that, after spending the first two hours eagerly attending to every little sound and movement, suddenly washed over me when we nearly walked into the park’s biggest wild elephant. Simultaneously, all four of us (Tiger Top Lodge guides Ram Din and Dani, and a young Australian – Andy needed to recharge a bit and stayed behind in the lodge) froze and moved to the side of the trail behind a tree. Through the undergrowth we could see the elephant’s huge head and tusks, which must have been over two meters in length. The big male was moving about wildly, pushing over scrub and small trees. He was uneasy as he had heard and smelled intruders but not yet seen them (elephants generally have very poor eyesight). For a few seconds we stood marvelling at this gigantic creature, but then Ram Dim told us to retreat slowly and so we continued on. Not much more had been needed to have this 5000 kg animal charging at us…

After this encounter the jungle and grasslands really came to life and I relished all of its animation as we walked without talking, hearts jumping every now and then at some unexpected sound. Apart from the wild elephant we saw various kinds of deer including hog deer and the very elegant spotted deer, we saw monkeys playing in the trees, and also two amazingly prehistoric rhinos bathing in a small stream. The latter was very, very lucky, I was told, as there are only 24 in the entire park.

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But no tigers, something that after the wild elephant encounter I was half relieved by. Later in the day, whilst sitting on the little verandah of our room at the lodge leafing through the BBC Book Tiger by famous naturalist Stephen Mills (writer, producer and cameraman of numerous tiger publications and films), I learned my fear had been somewhat unfounded. To a tiger, the proportions of a human being are very puzzling. In the tiger’s world, the fact that I am nearly 1.8 m tall, translates into that I might be up to 5.5 m long, just as his 0.9 m height corresponds to 2.7 meter length. Moreover, if it would still want to try and catch me, it would normally aim for my back. But then I appear not to have a back, as from the side human beings are very narrow. As Stephen Mills explains, all of this is so very disconcerting that tigers generally choose to go after more convincing prey.

Bardiya is home to about 50 tigers, which according to Stephen Mills accounts for about one percent of the world’s entire tiger population. Somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000, the exact number of tigers is uncertain, but it is certain that they are critically endangered. After decades of poaching and loss of habitat, it is doubtful whether the small remaining populations are viable enough to survive. The prospect of losing the world’s last tigers in the next five years looms.

Hopeful measures have been taken in Nepal, where not only Bardiya but also Shukla Phant and Chitwan have been set up as protected areas. As evidenced by the patrol we encountered deep in the park, the Nepali army ensures on-the-ground protection from illegal hunters. Such habitat protection is complemented with eco-development and educational conservation programmes informing and empowering communities to participate in the protection of the tiger.

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Army Patrol

Apart from Nepal, tigers can be found in India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Russia, China, occasionally North Korea, and also in Myanmar. In fact, after India, Myanmar might have the world’s largest number of tigers roaming in the wild. The Government of Myanmar has given an estimate of 600 to 1,000 tigers, most of whom would be living in the rugged uplands of Kachin State, and Myintmoletkat Taung, a large area of tropical rainforest in the midsection of the Taninthayi range of Southern Myanmar.

As such, Myanmar would have an important role to play in the survival of big cats. Like in Nepal, tigers in Myanmar have fallen prey to ethnic conflict and poaching but the absence of large-scale industries and infrastructure means that their habitat is still largely intact. In 2004, in cooperation with the Kachin Independence Army, the Government of Myanmar announced the creation of the world’s largest tiger reserve, Hukuaung Valley, initially stretching over 6,500 square kilometres and extended to nearly 22,000 square kilometres in 2010 (to compare: Bardiya is only 968 square kilometres). With this move, Myanmar now offers one of the best hopes for saving tigers in Southeast Asia according to Director of Wildlife Conservation Society’s Asia Programs Colin Poole.

Sitting at Tiger Tops Lodge, which was one of the first to open accommodation in Chitwan and Bardiya including pioneer safari lodges inside the parks, one wonders what kind of eco-tourism initiatives might develop in Myanmar as tourism starts to flourish.

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