Rare Monkey Species in Kachin State Faces Uncertain Future

By Seamus Martov 12 May 2015

Whether the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey, a unique looking species recently identified by researchers working in northern Burma continues to survive in the wild for the foreseeable future remains far from clear. Much of the monkey’s habitat in the hills of eastern Kachin State, along Burma’s border with China, has in recent years been the site of large-scale resource extraction projects that threaten it with extinction.

The London-based conservation group Fauna and Flora international (FFI) has in the years following the monkey’s discovery in 2010 been lobbying Burma’s government to establish the Imawbum National Park in a remote corner of Kachin State controlled by a pro-government militia in order to protect the monkey and other endangered species. The park, which has yet to be formally established, is in the final stages of the approval process, which FFI expects to be finished in the coming months.

When completed, the “National Park will provide further legal protection for the area” says FFI’s Myanmar Program Director Frank Momberg, who believes that such a move could also encourage China authorities on the other side of the border to take more of an interest to ensure the species isn’t driven to extinction.

“However, until effective National Park management is in place and the forest department can enforce the law against illegal logging, the future survival of these newly discovered primates is still critically endangered,” Momberg warns. According to FFI, the Myanmar snub-nosed monkey population is as low as 260-330, meaning that the species will soon be listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Activists from the Kachin Development Networking Group (KDNG), a local NGO that has been monitoring environmentally destructive resource and development projects in Kachin State for more than a decade maintain that ensuring the continued existence of the monkey and other rare species has less to do with establishing a formal park and more to do with bringing about a fundamental change in how Kachin State’s environment is managed. A process KDNG says must be inclusive. “The government needs to listen to local communities” says Saji, a KDNG spokesperson who remains skeptical of claims that the government wishes to protect the environment given its dismal track record in Kachin State, which his organization has repeatedly documented.

Saji says that while he hopes efforts to protect the monkey are successful, they should be done in a way that involves real consultation with the Imawbum area’s linguistically and cultural diverse population, which includes Lisu, Lachik and Lhao Vo, many of whom do not speak Burmese fluently.

Momberg says that his group has taken steps to facilitate an inclusive process that incorporates the rights of local people living in the area. “In collaboration with the Kachin State forest department we finalized the participatory boundary delineation of the proposed National Park in March, to ensure all indigenous rights of the local Kachin ethnic groups are fully respected and no shifting cultivation areas, ‘Taungya’ [both upland and fallow land] are excluded within the park boundaries”, Momberg told the Irrawaddy via email.

Despite these reassurances, Kachin activists have retained much of their skepticism about the park. The Imawbum park is not the first example of an international conservation group seeking to create a protected nature area in Kachin State to aid an endangered species. In western Kachin State’s Hukawng Valley, a tiger reserve established during the time of Than Shwe’s military regime in the early 2000s with the backing of New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the group’s former Director of Science and Exploration, Alan Rabinowitz, is officially the largest tiger reserve in the world. In the years since the reserve—which officially includes the entire valley—was created, the Yuzana company, a conglomerate controlled by Htay Myint—a prominent military crony turned USDP MP—seized hundreds of acres of farmland from small farmers to make way for growing biofuel crops that are processed in a factory also located in the valley. In addition to the plantations, logging and mining have also destroyed much of the area’s sensitive ecosystem.

According to Kachin land rights activist Bauk Jar (also spelled Bawk Ja), local hunters said there are no longer any tigers left living in the tiger reserve, a claim that doesn’t surprise KDNG and others who—at the time the reserve was created—criticized Rabinowitz and others involved for what they claimed was an opportunity for Burma’s rulers to camouflage themselves as protectors of the Hukawng while pursuing its destruction.

It remains to be seen if the monkey reserve will function as FFI has proposed, or if it will instead operate more like the Hukawng’s reportedly tiger-free tiger reserve. Geography and conflict have certainly complicated things for the park’s backers. The proposed park is set to be located in Kachin State Special Region no. 1, an area that was officially ceded to the New Democratic Army Kachin (NDAK) in an 1989 sign-fire that was reached after the NDAK’s long time leader broke away from the Communist Part of Burma (CPB).

Though the NDAK officially transformed into a border guard force in 2009, Special Region 1 remains the fiefdom of Zahkung Ting Ying, who represents the area in the national Parliament (his son, Zahkung Ying Sau, represents the same area for the Kachin State Parliament). The former communist guerrilla leader-turned-businessman is reported to have profited considerably over the years from his involvement in alarge molybdenum mine located in NDAK territory. In addition to mining, the NDAK is reported to have profited considerably from years of heavy logging in the area. A gleaming multi-storey office building located on the outskirts of Myitkyina, which serves as the headquarters of the NDAK’s business arm, stands as a testament to the handsome rewards Zakhung Ting Ying has received since ditching the CPB’s failed revolution and making peace with the central government.

The NDAK, according to Momberg, “has been supportive” of the creation of the national park, a sentiment expressed by Zakhung Ting Ying himself during a meeting that FFI’s local Burmese partner, BANCA, held with him to discuss the issue. “In this meeting the NDAK leader has been supportive of the conservation of Imawbum. Parliamentarians from Saw Law township who are NDAK members have joint [sic] our stakeholder meeting for Imawbum National Park designation,” explained Momberg in an email to the Irrawaddy.

The NDAK leadership’s newfound respect for the environment would be a much welcomed change for the group and its wily leader, who are considered by many in Kachin State to have been exclusively focused on enriching themselves, a view shared by many outside observers. In a leaked 2005 US embassy cable published by Wikileaks, American diplomats described the NDAK as a group that “resembles nothing more than a tightly-controlled business cartel.” The cable continued, “By all accounts, the outfit’s sole political objective now is to maintain sovereignty over the economic concessions it garnered in 1989 in one of the Burmese regime’s first cease-fire arrangements.”

Timber and mining aren’t the only profit making activities the NDAK is said to be involved with. A report released by the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand (KWAT) last year, alleged that BGF units comprised of ex-NDAK members still loyal to Zakhung Ting Yin have been actively involved in the opium trade across Special Region 1 in Chipwe, Sadung and Tsawlaw townships. The report, titled “Silent Offensive” alleges that the NDAK were being allowed to grow opium “in exchange for fighting against” the armed wing of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), who have been in conflict with the central government since a ceasefire dissolved in June 2011. Allegations of drug-running in NDAK territory are nothing new, and wee one of the reasons cited by a group of NDAK dissidents to justify what ultimately ended up being failed coup against Zakhung Ting Ying in 2005.