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Tigers on the Brink in Myanmar

Just 150 are thought to survive amid a poaching onslaught, a new survey shows. A recovery plan requires that the hunting be stopped.

September 14, 2003|Jerry Harmer | Associated Press Writer

BANGKOK, Thailand — In the days of British rule, tigers were so numerous in Burma they were shot as pests -- 1,382 of them from 1928-32, 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 there, although jungles still cover a third of its surface.

"We were disappointed," said Tony Lynam, leader of the 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: illegal wildlife traders and their gangs of hired poachers. Tiger parts are prized in China and Thailand by makers of traditional medicines, and Myanmar sits on the border of both countries.

The report says the poachers are killing so many tigers that the business will become "unsustainable," and that the killing "threatens to drive the Myanmar population to extinction."

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

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

Among other things, the report urges creation of a wildlife investigation unit and teams of eco-rangers to patrol protected areas. It suggests coordinated anti-poaching patrols with Thai rangers along the two countries' common border and heavy fines for anyone caught trading in tigers or tiger parts.

The plan also urges greater education, with government officials taught to monitor the situation better and the public taught to value the animal more as a living presence in their forests than as a slaughtered commodity.

The Wildlife Conservation Society believes the report is the first of its kind. "Nothing of this magnitude has been compiled for any country where tigers still roam," said Alan Rabinowitz, a spokesman for the society.

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 Lynam, the team leader. "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 embarked on a survey of 17 of the most promising jungle areas. Sometimes they traveled with armed guards. Other times the terrain was so difficult they used elephants to carry equipment. Many nights were so bitterly cold that they could not sleep, merely huddling around the fire until the sun came up.

Despite the privations, Lynam and his team spent 1,300 hours methodically searching for tiger tracks and other signs, such as droppings.

They interviewed almost 1,000 forest people to gather anecdotal evidence. They staked out trails with dozens of camera traps -- still cameras strapped to trees, which take shots when anything breaks an infrared beam.

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

It remains to be seen just how completely Myanmar adopts the wildlife society's action plan, given the history of governments in developing countries ignoring experts' ideas for 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 will become part of government policy. If so, the plan concludes, it is possible to bring the number of tigers back to "their former abundance across their range in Myanmar."

But whatever is done should be done soon. The report notes that forest tribesmen are so efficient in supplying the trade in traditional medicines that dealers on the Thai border say they can produce a tiger within three days -- for a deposit of about $12.

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