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Myanmar, the second largest country in mainland Southeast Asia, is home to a wealth of biodiversity. The country still harbours large tracts of forest and many charismatic and unique species such as the red panda and the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey. The latter was only discovered in 2010 by Fauna & Flora International (FFI) and partners.
In stark contrast to the country’s biological riches, over two thirds of the country’s human population currently live below the poverty line and depend on natural resources for their survival.
Despite their high dependence on natural resources, local people have been excluded from decisions concerning the country’s protected areas. Yet this situation is slowly changing. For the first time grass roots organisations are being established to address issues of environmental governance and human welfare.
FFI is working with these emerging organisations in Chin and Kachin states with our local partner Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association (BANCA). We are focusing on building their skills in forest and protected area management.
We are also offering guidance to state-run protected area management authorities on how to work alongside these grass roots organisations to tackle the many and mounting threats that country’s natural resources face, such as illegal logging, hunting and shifting agriculture.
The biodiversity of karst areas is very poorly known and yet these systems are typically home to large numbers of severely range-restricted species. The major threats to karst ecosystems in Myanmar are poorly planned quarrying for cement, insensitive tourism, wildfires and hunting. Without attention to karst ecosystems and the species they harbour, extinctions are inevitable. Since economic sanctions have been lifted and Myanmar issued a new Foreign Investment Law, construction is booming and so is the cement market. In 2014, project teams carried out comprehensive bat and invertebrate surveys. Based on the results, eight priority caves were selected for pilot conservation action. In May 2016, the first national workshop on the conservation of karst ecosystems was organised in Naypyidaw together with the Forestry, Environmental Conservation, Mining and Industry departments and cement companies. A tourism cave management training workshop was held in July 2016 and sustainable guano harvesting training will be organised later this year.
Deforestation and hunting have exterminated the two species of hoolock gibbon from many sites. In early 2012 FFI identified a priority conservation site for western hoolock gibbons; Pauk Sa Mountain is the centre of a large – currently pristine – tract of hill broadleaf evergreen forest. At least five gibbon groups were observed in the survey area. The main threat to gibbons and to the watershed forest at the site is shifting cultivation by local ethnic Chin minorities, which can be mitigated through the development of community forestry and agroforestry as alternatives to shifting cultivation.
A core conservation zone has been defined in consultation with members of village conservation groups to protect the natural forest and threatened wildlife within the Man Reserved Forest Core Conservation Area. The project has supported 154 village conservation group members from six villages in piloting alternative agriculture systems and agroforestry or community forestry projects. In 2016, FFI supported the planting of cash crops such as shade coffee and pepper at an abandoned farm.
Meinmahla Kyun Wildlife Sanctuary is one of the oldest protected areas in Myanmar. It has also suffered for many years from demand for fuelwood and construction timber due to its location in the densely populated Ayeyarwady Delta. The site still maintains a diverse fauna, including over half of the mangroves known from the Asia-Pacific region, and supports marine turtles, Irrawaddy dolphin and large numbers of migratory waterbirds. FFI is working with local partners to develop a protected area management plan for the site, which it also helped nominate as a globally important wetland under the Ramsar convention. Activities include: community-managed fish conservation zones and collaborative law enforcement to address over-fishing; agroforestry and establishment of woodlots, coupled with improved cook stoves, to address unsustainable extraction; community-based mangrove rehabilitation and restoration to partially reverse previous damage; and improved farming practices to combat loss of juvenile fish and crabs to agricultural run-off. The project is also developing new livelihood opportunities through community-based ecotourism.
An FFI-led team discovered a new species of snub-nosed monkey, Rhinopithecus strykeri, in the Imawbum Mountain Range in northern Myanmar in 2010. Its range is believed to be less than 400 km2, with an estimated population of 260-330 individuals. The Myanmar snub-nosed monkey has been classified as Critically Endangered and is restricted to the high altitude zone of the Imawbum mountain range between the N’mai River and the Chinese border.
The mountain range supports one of the highest levels of biodiversity in the eastern Himalayas. FFI-led surveys also recorded other threatened species of global conservation importance (e.g. takin, red panda, Asiatic black bear and Blyth’s tragopan).
Using the recently discovered primate as a flagship species, FFI has encouraged indigenous communities and local township authorities to establish a community-based conservation area. Local communities, regional and national government have approved the establishment of Imawbum National Park, and FFI has initiated a buffer-zone development programme.
FFI recently established a formal partnership for coastal biodiversity conservation in Myanmar with Woodside Energy. The first stage of the collaboration focused on a comprehensive baseline assessment of coastal and marine biodiversity in the nearshore area along the west coast of Ayeyarwady region, which is relevant to Woodside’s oil and gas exploration licence. The area proved to include a wide diversity of coral reefs, seagrass, mudflats and mangrove habitats. Under the partnership, FFI is also providing technical and capacity building support for marine science departments of local universities, in particular Pathein University, to lay the foundations for future involvement in biodiversity assessment, environmental impact assessments and monitoring. The next step will be to identify key biodiversity areas and their management needs, while establishing a system for the long-term monitoring of ecosystem health within them.
The main threats to Indawgyi Lake are deforestation due to firewood extraction, and sedimentation caused by gold mining. FFI has supported local community livelihoods in the buffer zone through the establishment of community forestry and woodlots for planting firewood species and the provision of fuel-efficient stoves to villages. Since 2012, 25 community forestry projects have been established and more than 3,000 fuel-efficient stoves distributed. FFI supports small grants to fishing communities to initiate sustainable livelihoods. Together with the Fisheries Department and the lake authorities, FFI has established fish conservation zones. A waterbird census is conducted regularly at the lake, which is a vital migratory stopover. FFI supported the Forest Department in proposing Indawgyi as a Ramsar Site, leading to its designation in 2016. FFI worked with the German government to prepare the nomination of Indawgyi area as UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and we are currently helping the Forest Department to prepare a five-year management plan for Indawgyi Lake Wildlife Sanctuary.
Since 2013 FFI has been conducting fish and other aquatic habitat surveys in collaboration with the relevant government departments and local universities. The focus has been on identifying endemic and threatened fish species and important habitats in Indawgyi basin and along the tributaries in the Hponganrazi Wildlife Sanctuary. To date up to 10 potentially new species have been identified. Also, four new fish conservation zones have been established in collaboration with local communities and relevant government departments in the Indawgyi Lake basin, and three are under way within Hponganrazi. We also recently held a high-profile national workshop on the Policies and Practices for Community Based Fisheries and Fish Conservation to identify how to develop laws and regulations relevant to community activities in fish conservation. Initial results illustrate the potential for achieving the complementary goals of maintaining fish biodiversity and local community livelihoods. The project will continue to build this experience of collaborative approaches among government departments and local communities.
After years of unmanaged logging, the Myanmar government began a dialogue with the European Union on the latter’s Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Programme in late 2013 in an apparent attempt to clean up the industry and thereby gain access to lucrative European markets. By October 2014, the government had agreed to launch a ‘pre-negotiation’ towards the eventual development of a formal licence, but the preparations are still at an early stage. FFI sought to take advantage of this opportunity to ensure community forestry was not overlooked in the discussions. To date we have clarified the legal status of commercial timber production from certified community forests, provided appropriate management guidelines for community forestry managers, and launched a follow-up initiative to enable them to participate in the FLEGT negotiations, and to undertake a supervised timber harvest from a certified community forest, thereby providing ‘proof of concept’.
This project was initiated after camera-trapping results from three sites within the programme from 2014 indicated that forest elephants were widespread in the landscape. Interview results also suggested that there was strong demand for young elephants and elephant products among wildlife traders, and that limited law enforcement in forests along the Thailand border was putting pressure on a wild forest elephant population of potentially global significance. We reacted quickly in establishing an elephant project, with initial funding from the US State Department, which is addressing the main needs for the species by conducting a more detailed assessment of elephant status and threats, assessing and managing human-elephant conflict, raising awareness of elephant conservation issues, and identifying long-term management priorities. The first year was spent training a field team, establishing a monitoring mechanism, and mapping records of conflict with humans across the target landscape.
By identifying the areas in most urgent need of protection, FFI can address threats to their survival – particularly the expansion of oil palm and rubber plantations, and the illegal wildlife trade. Where possible, we have identified the root causes of those threats – low awareness and capacity, inappropriate legal frameworks, and a lack of political will – in order that they might be addressed. For example, to address wholesale habitat conversion, we recently called for a moratorium on the further expansion of oil palm until regulatory mechanisms could be made fit for purpose. We have also held consultations on how to address illegal trade in endangered species, which is driving commercial poaching. A key project activity is the expansion of community forest management, through community forestry, and capacity building for community groups in camera trapping and threat monitoring. We are also raising capacity in civil society through the provision of small grants.
This three-year initiative aims to establish and support tiger and prey monitoring, community patrolling, improved law enforcement, village forest management, ecotourism development, and improved cooperation with authorities in Thailand. The project focuses on the southern landscape of the region, which covers over 400,000 hectares and includes two reserve forests that the government has identified for long-term protection under its commitments to the global Convention on Biological Diversity. The area has witnessed years of conflict, with ethnic Karen and other groups claiming customary rights and legitimacy to manage these forests themselves. The project will attempt to encourage all stakeholders to work together for the long-term protection of tigers and prey while a wider peace settlement is sought.
FFI Myanmar is working in the extensive but little-known Myeik Archipelago to lay the foundations for long-term conservation of this unique marine environment. We provided training for Myanmar’s first scuba research team, who have since undertaken over 200 coral reef surveys, complemented by more in-depth research in cooperation with international marine scientists and conservation biologists. The project has collected comprehensive baseline information on coral reefs, mangrove habitats and seagrass meadows along the coast, and identified key biodiversity areas in which to focus conservation management. In parallel, FFI has worked with offshore fishing communities in and around these priority areas, including the formerly entirely nomadic and frequently marginalised Moken people. Community engagement has included education and training, and the piloting of Locally Managed Marine Areas (LMMAs) – considered to be global best practice for community-based fisheries management – at three sites within the archipelago.