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Meet Saw Soe Aung: Protecting tigers in Tanintharyi

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Myanmar’s natural ecosystems – including far-reaching tracts of forest – are among the most intact in the world. These landscapes harbour a rich array of animal and plant life, but their integrity is under severe pressure from land use intensification and overexploitation. The future of the country’s biodiversity – and the livelihoods of those living closest to nature – will depend on how quickly and effectively we can address those threats.

The relatively pristine lowland forests of Tanintharyi in southern Myanmar are one of the jewels in the crown of the country’s precious natural heritage. Extending from the border with Thailand to the coastal waters of the Andaman Sea, this landscape harbours globally important and seriously threatened wildlife including Asian elephants, the last known population of Gurney’s pitta and Myanmar’s largest remaining population of the endangered Indochinese tiger.

Primary forest in Tanintharyi. © Jeremy Holden / Fauna & Flora

Primary forest in Tanintharyi. © Jeremy Holden / Fauna & Flora

Primary forest in Tanintharyi.

Fauna & Flora’s efforts to conserve the Indochinese tiger and its forest habitat revolve around identifying high conservation value areas in most urgent need of protection and integrating them into regional development and land use plans.

Fauna & Flora’s terrestrial programme in Tanintharyi – including our work with tigers – is in the capable hands of Saw Soe Aung, a field biologist who has gravitated from conducting a population census on Myanmar’s gibbons and monitoring Myanmar snub-nosed monkey movements to his current role as Senior Biologist and Acting Programme Manager. Tiger conservation has been at the heart of Saw Soe Aung’s day job since 2015.

Saw Soe Aung (right) and a local hunter setting a camera trap to monitor Myanmar snub-nosed monkeys. © Jeremy Holden / Fauna & Flora

Saw Soe Aung (right) and a local hunter setting a camera trap to monitor Myanmar snub-nosed monkeys. © Jeremy Holden / Fauna & Flora

Saw Soe Aung (right) and a local hunter setting a camera trap to monitor Myanmar snub-nosed monkeys.

Why did you choose a career in conservation?

My father was a hunter – for fun – and he used to tell me about his adventures with the animals he shot. Since then, I have subconsciously been interested in how I could help wild animals when I grew up, without shooting them like my father did.

Can you describe a typical working day?

My days are usually spent on fieldwork. But at the moment, two-thirds of my time is spent working on management tasks in the office [as Acting Programme Manager], and the rest of my time I’m working with our teams in the field, especially on human-elephant conflict mitigation, awareness activities with local communities, and tiger camera trapping.

What’s your favourite species, and why?

As a conservationist, I like all species, but if I have to choose my favourite, the Indochinese tiger is the species that interests me most. Because the Indochinese tiger is an endangered tiger that is native to mainland Southeast Asia. Once the apex predator of the region’s vast tropical and subtropical forests, today it clings to survival on the very edge of extinction in Thailand and Myanmar.

Indochinese tiger © Fauna & Flora

Indochinese tiger © Fauna & Flora

Indochinese tiger caught on camera in Tanintharyi. © Fauna & Flora

How are you protecting the Indochinese tiger?

In order to protect this species, we work by engaging with the local people in the project area, communicating with various departments and cooperating. In addition, the Indochinese tiger is not only in Myanmar but also in Thailand, so the two countries should collaborate to protect this species through transboundary surveys, for example.

Why is it important to protect tigers?

As we all know, tiger is one of the umbrella species. It is the most important species in the ecosystem, so by protecting the tiger, the ecosystem has been protected. Now there are only 22 tigers left in Myanmar. Looking at this situation, the tiger may disappear from Myanmar before too long, so saving the species from extinction in time is also an important role.

What other species are you involved in protecting?

Currently, the goal of our Illegal Wildlife Trade project is for stable or growing populations of tiger, Asian elephant and Sunda pangolin. So, I’m involved in the protection of other species such as elephants and pangolins, but also the tigers’ prey – gaur, banteng [species of wild cattle] and sambar [a large deer].

What has been your proudest moment in your work for Fauna & Flora?

The biggest achievement in my life was being able to record the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey, a new species for Myanmar, with a camera trap for the first time, and I’m proud of being able to identify the current population of tigers in southern Myanmar.

Saw Soe Aung (left) with That Nhei Aung and a local hunter viewing the first ever photos of the then newly discovered Myanmar snub-nosed monkey © Jeremy Holden / Fauna & Flora

Saw Soe Aung (left) with That Nhei Aung and a local hunter viewing the first ever photos of the then newly discovered Myanmar snub-nosed monkey © Jeremy Holden / Fauna & Flora

Saw Soe Aung (left) with That Nhei Aung and a local hunter viewing the first ever photos of the then newly discovered Myanmar snub-nosed monkey.

Where is the best place you have worked in the field?

My favourite place is our project area in Tanintharyi Region which is rich in species, with tropical monsoon climate and home of great diversity of flora and fauna. This is due to the presence of different forest types like tropical evergreen forest, Sundaic lowland forest, semi-evergreen forest, mangrove forest etc., with the extent depending on topography, geological features and climatic factors.

What’s the secret of success when working with local communities?

Our current project is community-based conservation. If the communities are not involved, we will not be able to achieve as much success as we do in every project we do. Therefore, the secret to success when working with local communities is that transparency, mutual trust and understanding play an important role.

Survey team drawn from the local community in Tanintharyi, Myanmar. © Jeremy Holden / Fauna & Flora

Survey team drawn from the local community in Tanintharyi, Myanmar. © Jeremy Holden / Fauna & Flora

Survey team drawn from the local community in Tanintharyi.

What are the biggest challenges in your job?

There are always different challenges in every job. The word “conservation” sounds easy, but if you really think about it, it’s a very difficult task. The current political instability in our country is the main challenge in conservation.

What’s the best lesson that you have learned from your job?

I have learned that we should also know the needs and attitudes of the local communities, not just under the title of conservation in their project area. The purpose and objectives of our project should also be clearly explained to the local communities. In addition, although the conservation work seems easy on the surface, it is difficult and adventure-filled in practice.

What was your most memorable wildlife encounter?

The most amazing thing I experienced was when I came face to face with a bear for the first time and ran for my life. It was really exciting and an event that I will never forget.

What’s the most exciting thing that has happened this year?

In June 2023, we identified one new individual tiger [every tiger has a different stripe pattern] among the eight tigers from the camera trap. It was fun and exciting to be able to record the tiger population in the current project area.

An Indochinese tiger recorded in the Ywarhilu area of Bokepyin township, Southern Myanmar. Footage © Chaung Nyauk Pyan Village conservation group

What are your hopes for the future of Myanmar’s biodiversity?

My hope is that the leaders who govern Myanmar are conscious of environmental protection and, if they support from their side, it will help ensure the preservation of Myanmar’s important biological diversity for the future.

Indochinese tiger © Juan Carlos Munoz / Adobe Stock

Saving tigers together

Myanmar’s last tigers are clinging to survival in Tanintharyi. Please support our vital work with local communities to protect these endangered carnivores and their precious habitat.

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Indochinese tiger © Juan Carlos Munoz / Adobe Stock