The Northern Forests Complex is one of the largest remaining contiguous forests in Southeast Asia and stretches across lowland forests and wetlands, coniferous forests, and snow-covered mountains above the tree line in Northern Myanmar. Spanning more than 12,000 square miles at the crossroads of India, Myanmar, and China, this vast landscape encompasses the highest mountain and the headwaters of the Irrawaddy and the Chindwin, the country’s most important river system, sustaining extensive rice farming that supports many local communities.
Four protected areas embrace one of the region’s largest remaining expanses of natural forest, which host some of the region's greatest biodiversity, including what are believed to be its best remaining populations of tigers and elephants. These forests are also home to more than a million people who depend on the region's vast ecological resources, both inland and along the adjacent coastline.
The country's Northern Forest Complex, a 12,000-square-mile tract that runs along the border from India to China in Burma's Kachin State, is home to tigers, bears, elephants, and hundreds of bird species. The heart of that forest, at nearly 8,500 square miles, is Burma's Hukaung Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, the largest tiger reserve in the world.
View of the Hkakaborazi mountain Photo (c) Robert Tizard
Hunting poses a serious challenge to conservation efforts. Hunters target wild animals both to eat and trade locally, as well as for the international trade - which prizes exotic animal parts like bear paws and tiger skins. In some areas of the region, species like tigers and otters face extinction due to such cross-border trade. Agricultural expansion and gold mining are also threats to the ecosystem, particularly in the Hukaung Valley.
The sanctions imposed by Western governments in response to the military dictatorship's brutal human rights record arguably helped to preserve Burma's remote areas by denying access to credit and foreign investment that would have otherwise been used for road building in the northern jungles. But with Western governments now lifting sanctions to reward the government's democratic reforms, some experts warn that an influx of foreign capital might open the floodgates to development and cause significant environmental harm. In a bid to expand regional trade routes, Chinese and Japanese corporations are making plans to open transportation corridors through some of Burma's far-flung jungles, paving the way for resource exploitation.
The neighboring China represents a mix of both development opportunities and ecosystem threats. Illegal wildlife trade, albeit severely sanctioned by the central government, still flourishes in the border areas, which benefit from limited supervision both due to their remote location and the traditional influence of local insurgents and war lords. Even recent surveys in MongLa city have reported illegal wildlife trade in all kinds of endangered species, including bear, elephant, and pangolin. In the vast Hukaung wildlife sanctuary, only 50 tigers are thought to survive.
The lifting of sanctions also produced a positive impact at the civil society level, fostering and increasingly active community engagement in public and environmental matters. For over a decade, WCS has been working with local communities helping to conserve and facilitate their rights to forest resources. We train park rangers on advanced patrolling techniques, and provide financial support for communities to shift to sustainable agriculture. "It used to be that all of us in the civil society struggled with limited funding sources, but now with the political opening, we're seeing more funding agencies and organizations coming here and what we hope is that with their help we can expand our activities." (U Than Myint - WCS Myanmar Country Director). Guidance and capacity building are crucial to ensure government and communities adopt sustainable forms of income generation and forest management practices.
Since 2002, WCS has been using camera traps to conduct the first-ever scientific population estimate for tigers in northern Myanmar. They also surveyed other smaller, lesser-known carnivores. This work has helped our scientists formulate conservation strategies for the country’s wildlife.
WCS currently works on long-term natural resource management with local communities, balancing human needs with the preservation of the landscape. Training in sustainable land use and community forestry gives local residents the tools to make a living while protecting their natural environment.
WCS recruits local residents as conservation allies through environmental education centers, mobile education teams, and even wildlife movie screenings that showcase the region’s natural treasures. Strong partnerships with the community are an essential part of the quest to protect this marvelous and wild landscape for future generations.