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Celebrating World Wetlands Day in Myanmar

Posted on: 04.02.14 (Last edited) 7 February 2014

Tony Whitten, Fauna & Flora International’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director, reports back from weekend activities in Myanmar, celebrating World Wetlands Day.

On 2 February each year most countries celebrate World Wetlands Day, and this year I was lucky enough to be involved with the event in Myanmar which Fauna & Flora International (FFI) co-sponsored with the government. It was held at Moeyungyi (pronounced Mu-yun-ji) Lake just over 100 km north of the country’s largest city, Yangon.

The lake was actually created by the British colonial government in 1878 as a reservoir that was intended to keep water levels high in the nearby Bago-Sittaung canal and so increase the number of days on which the large logs could be floated down to Yangon. Those days (and those forests) are long gone. Nowadays the water is used for irrigating downstream rice fields.

Duckherd on Muyungyi Lake. Credit: Tony Whitten/FFI

Duckherd on Muyungyi Lake. Credit: Tony Whitten/FFI

As a Wildlife Sanctuary it seeks to conserve the 70 or so species of resident and migratory water birds and their habitats, to be a place for recreation and learning for all, and to encourage active participation in wetland conservation activities. The stars of the site are the Critically Endangered Baer’s Pochard, the Vulnerable Sarus Crane and Greater Spotted Eagle, as well as exceptional numbers of Northern Pintail – up to 20,000 in some years. The site is also important for the vulnerable and beautiful Burmese Peacock Turtle.

Asian openbill stork. Credit: Tony Whitten/FFI

Asian openbill stork. Credit: Tony Whitten/FFI

All these features contribute to it having been designated by the Ramsar Convention as a ‘Wetland of International Importance’ in 2004. It remains the country’s sole Ramsar site – but the government and FFI in Myanmar are working to change this. Watch this space!

About 100 people gathered under the trees at the side of the lake to wait for the arrival of H.E. U Win Tun, the Minister of Environmental Conservation and Forests, and U Nyan Win, the Chief Minister of Bago Region. The two of them cut a ribbon to officially open the refurbished education centre and its brand new exhibition. We all looked around the attractive exhibits before walking along to the restaurant for a delicious Burmese breakfast. I should point out that we had started our drive to the lake at 5 am and were rather hungry! The early start was to give us the chance of seeing the lake at its best. A privately-owned company, Shwe Pyi Aye Co. Ltd, started operations here in 1996 and encouraged residents of Yangon and the capital Naypyidaw some 2.5 hours away, to spend some recreation time here and promote ecotourism. Apart from the information centre, there is also a guesthouse, restaurant, bird watching towers, a meeting space, and nine small boat-shaped timber houses for rent.

H.E. U Win Tun, Minister of Environmental Conservation and Forestry. Credit: Tony Whitten/FFI

H.E. U Win Tun, Minister of Environmental Conservation and Forestry. Credit: Tony Whitten/FFI

We then got into a number of long wooden motor boats, including one reserved for the media, and for 45 minutes or so enjoyed seeing some of the lake. It is much larger than I had thought – 10,000 hectares of open water and some emergent vegetation. The largest and most exciting bird we saw was the Asian Openbill whose bill, when shut, is open along most of its length. Why?!

The senior Burmese officials were in a boat together and Director U Win Naing Thaw of the Nature and Wildlife Conservation Division could be seen energetically explaining the values and benefits of the lake.

U Win Naing Thaw, Director of Nature and Wildlife Conservation. Credit: Tony Whitten/FFI

U Win Naing Thaw, Director of Nature and Wildlife Conservation. Credit: Tony Whitten/FFI

Parts of the water surface were almost completely carpeted by the beautiful, white feather-petalled ‘banana plant’ Nymphoides indica whose leaves look just a water lily, but it is in fact within a completely unrelated family.

U Win Naing Thaw, Director of Nature and Wildlife Conservation, explaining the significance of wetlands to his Minister and his Director-General, Dr U Nyi Nyi Kyaw. Credit: Tony Whitten/FFI

U Win Naing Thaw, Director of Nature and Wildlife Conservation, explaining the significance of wetlands to his Minister and his Director-General, Dr U Nyi Nyi Kyaw. Credit: Tony Whitten/FFI

Back on dry land we went to the large meeting space and listened to the formal speech of welcome from the Minister, and the more technical speeches from U Win Naing Thaw and the Asia-Pacific Senior Advisor of the Ramsar Convention Secretariat in Geneva, Dr Llewellyn Young.

We then returned to the restaurant for a flavourful Burmese lunch (I am a great fan of Burmese food), and said our various goodbyes.

Written by
Tony Whitten

If I were fabulously rich I'd probably try to do something similar to what I am doing professionally which is the fulfillment of my goal since I was very young. My first research was on ducks' sense of smell and my second paper was on the mating display of the Blue Duck. I moved from an interest in waterfowl to primates for my PhD, studying the endangered Kloss gibbon (and the people) on remote Siberut Island, west of Sumatra. That unwittingly set the course for the rest of my life in terms of commitment to Asia and also resulted in my first 'popular' book; indeed, for nearly 20+ years I had one or more books on the go. With gibbons behind me, I began work as Advisor in the Centre of Environmental Studies at the University of North Sumatra. Seeing the capacity problems facing environmental management in Indonesia, I initiated a series of major ecology books on different areas of Indonesia. Over the following 12 years - most of those in Indonesia - I wrote three of the volumes (on Sumatra, Sulawesi, and Java and Bali) while employed by Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia. During the ten years living in Indonesia I became very involved with freshwater fish and also land snails and ended up writing books on those too. Meanwhile I consulted for most of the major development agencies on land settlement, indigenous people, forest issues, and biodiversity. I became staff of the World Bank in 1995 through being a consultant for its independent evaluations arm working in Malaysia and Indonesia on land settlement and transmigration. While there I was engaged in three types of work: support to others' projects on habitat policy issues, regional initiatives, and my own conservation projects in Mongolia, China, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Laos. The first of these I found very stimulating and satisfying; seeking to find practical and sustainable solutions while allowing the projects to deliver their benefits. My regional initiatives sought to fill important gaps and to get the Bank’s imprimatur on important topics (freshwater biodiversity, karst biodiversity, biodiversity and impact assessment, faiths and environment) that were not commonly supported.

Other posts by Dr Tony Whitten

Written by

Tony Whitten
Other posts by Dr Tony Whitten
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