Myanmar's tigers face extinction

BANGKOK, Thailand — In the days of British rule, tigers were so numerous in Burma they were shot as pests — 1,382 of them between 1928 and 1932, according to historical records.

Today, those pith-helmeted hunters would stalk the country's forests in vain. The tiger is almost extinct in Myanmar, as Burma is now known.

A landmark report by the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society has calculated there could be fewer than 150 left in a country, although jungles still cover a third of its surface.

"We were disappointed," said Tony Lynam, leader of the society team that produced the report after a three-year evaluation. "The population has declined everywhere and in some places it's gone completely. It's history."

The culprits are depressingly familiar to naturalists everywhere: the illegal wildlife traders and their gangs of hired poachers. Tiger parts are highly prized in China and Thailand by makers of traditional medicines, and Myanmar sits on the border of both countries.

The report said the poachers were killing so many tigers that their own business would become "unsustainable," and that the killing persisting throughout forest areas "threatens to drive the Myanmar population to extinction."

But the 80-page report, commissioned by the Myanmar government and presented to it earlier this month, is meant to trumpet the resurrection of the species, not its requiem.

It lays out a comprehensive action plan to restore the big cat to its former numbers. Stopping the trade is one of its key recommendations.

Among other things, it urges the organization of a wildlife investigation unit and the creation of teams of eco-rangers to regularly patrol legally protected areas.

It suggests coordinated anti-poaching patrols with Thai rangers along the two countries' common border and heavy fines for anyone caught trading tigers or their parts.

The action plan also stresses teaching officials to monitor the situation more effectively and educating the public so people come to value the animal more as a living presence in their forests than as a slaughtered commodity.

The Wildlife Conservation Society believes the report, called "A National Tiger Action Plan for the Union of Myanmar," is the first of its kind.

Alan Rabinowitz, the director of the society's Science and Exploration Program, said that "nothing of this magnitude has been compiled for any country where tigers still roam."

The work was supported by the U.S. National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Exxon Mobil's "Save The Tiger Fund."

When the wildlife society's team began its research, it was operating in the dark. Political repression and subsequent international boycotts have largely cut off Myanmar from the outside world for 40 years, so there has been little or no modern exploration of its far-flung corners.

"In my mind I had images of dense jungle, of grass 10 feet high," said team leader Lynam. "I had great anticipation of actually seeing tigers, that they would be all around. We had the feeling that we'd be seeing them left, right and center."

Using techniques first developed in India, Lynam, a 38-year-old biologist from Perth, Australia, and a trained team from Myanmar's Forestry Department staff embarked on a survey of 17 of the most promising jungle areas.

It was hard going. Sometimes they traveled with armed guards, and at others the terrain was so difficult they used elephants to carry equipment. Many nights were so bitterly cold they could not sleep and had to huddle around the fire until the sun came up.

Despite the privations, Lynam and his team stuck to their task. They spent 1,300 man hours methodically searching for tiger tracks and other signs, such as droppings.

Almost 1,000 interviews were conducted with forest people to gather anecdotal evidence. The team staked out trails with dozens of camera traps _ still cameras, strapped to trees, which take shots when anything breaks an infrared beam they emit.

These were collected after a month and the film was developed. In all, 4,099 photos were taken. The results were sobering. The cameras snapped tigers at just four of the 17 sites. At two of the sites, just a single photo of a tiger was taken.

The report states that forest tribesmen have been so efficient in supplying the trade in traditional medicines that dealers on the Thai border claim they can produce a tiger within three days for a deposit of about US$12.

It remains to be seen just how completely Myanmar adopts the wildlife society's action plan, given the history of governments in developing countries for ignoring experts' plans on all manner of suggested improvements.

But in a preface to the report, the Forestry Department's director-general, U Shwe Kyaw, says the society's recommendations would become part of the government policy.

If so, the Action Plan concludes, "potentially tigers are recoverable to their former abundance across their range in Myanmar."

Source: Associated Press

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