I recently interviewed a former employee of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) who spent one year working in the forests of the Hukaung Valley Tiger Reserve. His job was to do surveys on the tiger population.
"Basically there are no tigers left," he reports, "Especially not in the reserve."
Naturalist John Goodridge recently conducted an informal survey and came to the same conclusion. He said that although there were no tigers, the Hukaung valley remained an ideal habitat for them. There were hopes that the tigers might return.
Since then, the Wildlife Conservation Society has been trying to protect the reserve's bountiful wildlife from poachers. Enforcement is difficult. The Forests Department arrests poachers every day, but it lacks the resources to prosecute them.
There are no easy answers in the Hukaung Valley, home to several political powers including the Naga Army and the Kachin Independence Army. In the past few years, gold mining has come to dominate the local economy.
The gold mining and the accompanying population increase have been devastating to the local environment. The water quality is terrible, and ever greater numbers of poachers are turning to the local forests for food. The national government is also giving land grants to sprawling tapioca plantations. The agricultural companies must smooth the landscape with bulldozers before farming is possible.
There's a farcical nature to the efforts of the tiger reserve, even beyond the fact that there are no tigers. While the Forests Department fails to prosecute poachers it has in custody, the central government continues to grant mining and farming contracts which will exacerbate the problems. Outside the valley, there is little understanding of the challenges in the region. International funders demand that WCS conduct surveys to confirm what they already know.
A local environmental law student recently said to me that countries must reach a minimum level of development before they will even consider protecting the environment. In Myanmar, achieving that minimum level still seems like a distant dream.
Orion Martin '11 is currently volunteer teaching in Yangon, Myanmar.