World’s Largest Tiger Reserve ‘Bereft of Cats’

By Seamus Martov 16 November 2012

The massive environmental destruction inflicted on the Hukaung (also Hukawng, Hugawng) Valley by large scale logging, gold mining and plantations has very likely killed off all the existing tigers in the area, warns land rights activist and environmentalist Bawk Jar.

Located in northwestern Kachin State, the entire valley consisting of 21,890 square kilometers (8,452 square miles) is officially home to what Burma’s government says is the world’s largest tiger reserve. A highly contested claim given what Bawk Jar says is the increasingly obvious lack of any of the animals in the valley.

Bawk Jar, who has lived and traveled extensively in the area since moving there in 2000, has observed a sharp decline in the Hukaung’s environment over the past decade. Her bleak assessment was made after numerous local animal trackers told her they haven’t seen tiger paw prints or other signs of big cat life in the valley for several years. “The hunters have told me there are no more tigers left,” said Bauk Jar, during a recent sit-down interview with The Irrawaddy.

In mid-2010, less than a year before fighting erupted throughout Kachin State, Bawk Jar conducted an extensive field trip to remote parts of the valley where tigers were known to live. What she saw was considerably different from previous trips to the area. Despite being the heart of the tiger reserve most of the trees had been chopped down, and a once-vibrant ecosystem destroyed.

Although she has been back and forth from the Hukaung Valley since 2010, due to the ongoing fighting between the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and Burma’s military taking place across Kachin State including in the valley itself, subsequent visits to known tiger hotpots have been restricted. She has continued to receive reports from tiger trackers in the area that the animals have disappeared, she says.

While poaching has killed off many of the valley’s tigers, Bawk Jar believes that the huge loss of habitat in the valley is the driving force behind their decline and likely extinction. The Yuzana Corporation, and its wealthy owner Htay Myint, currently a member of Burma’s Parliament for the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), bear the bulk of the responsibility for destroying the Hukaung Valley’s environment, says Bawk Jar.

The valley was until very recently also home to a range of other endangered species including Asian bears, clouded leopard, sambar deer, barking deer, wild boar and dhole. But all of these animals are in serious decline because of the rapid development of recent years.

Since 2006, Yuzana, with the cooperation of local authorities, has expropriated more than 200,000 acres of farmland from more than 600 households in the valley, says Bawk Jar, who has led a campaign to reverse these land grabs.

The once-thriving small scale farming plots have been transformed into full scale cassava, tapioca and sugarcane plantations. Yuzana’s land seizures directly impacted more than 10,000 people in the valley who have been left destitute without means to feed themselves, claim activists.

Land expropriated by Yuzana has also included what had been officially deemed tiger transit corridors, areas that were supposed to remain untouched from development so that the endangered creatures could cross back and forth between officially protected pockets of the valley.

After angry farmers displaced by Yuzana launched protests, petitions and lawsuits, the firm recently returned a small portion of land. Nevertheless, this is thought to comprise less than five percent of the total area seized by Yuzana. Many landless farmers have compensated for the loss of income by sneaking back onto isolated patches of Yuzana’s plantations and growing poppies to be used in heroin production.

One 26-year-old Hukaung native interviewed by The Irrawaddy in August described her landless family in dire terms. “When Yuzana took our land, we were left with nothing. Before we had plenty of food, but now my family can barely survive,” she said. After their land was taken in 2006 her parents refused to accept compensation from Yuzana. Others who did so are hardly any better off, receiving as little as 1,300 kyat (US $1.30) per acre for paddies their family had toiled on for generations.

While their relatives grow opium or resort to working in unregistered gold mines, young women from families who lost their land are now filling brothels and karaoke bars that were established to service the influx of workers who Yuzana brought to the valley.

Much of the work on Yuzana’s plantations is carried out by migrants from Arakan State and the Irrawaddy Delta, but these people are not paid well and frequently resort to stealing food from the small plots that local Kachin families have been able to retain.

Compounding the food shortage in the valley, the large scale open pit gold mining operations of Yuzana and smaller unregistered mines have also killed off much of the once vibrant fish life in the local rivers, says Bawk Jar. The lack of fish is particularly noticeable along large stretches of the Mogaung River where Yuzana’s cyanide-intensive shoreline mining operations regularly send large amounts of toxic waste.

Yuzana’s land grabs in the Hukaung Valley in 2006 and 2007 were made possible by then-Northern Regional Military Commander Maj-Gen Ohn Myint, a close ally of Yuzana’s owner. Ohn Myint now serves as Burma’s Minister for Livestock and Fisheries after defeating Bawk Jar, who was standing as a candidate for the National Democratic Force (NDF), in the 2010 election. The showdown between land rights activist and land grabbing facilitator was a highly disputed contest that saw 13,255 ballots declared invalid.

The fate of the tiger reserve remains very uncertain. Established in 2001 by Burma’s then-ruling military junta with the enthusiastic support of the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the reserve has been extremely controversial. Critics charge that the reserve was formed with almost no input whatsoever from local villagers or valley residents.

Community activists like Bawk Jar also complain that the reserve’s creation served as a convenient excuse for central government to significantly increase its presence in the valley, an area that historically had only been only nominally under state control.

Officially the reserve was expanded in 2004 to encompass the entire Hukaung Valley, yet local reports suggest little conservation has actually taken place since. In fact, over the last eight years government authorities have actively encouraged wide-scale clear cut logging, mining and plantation farms to take root in this ecologically sensitive area, says the Kachin Development Networking Group (KDNG), an organization focused on environment and human rights issues in Kachin State.

“WCS knows what is going on but they have kept silent about the situation in the valley,” says KDNG spokesperson Ah Nan. Like Bawk Jar, KDNG blames the government and Yuzana Corporation for destroying the valley’s fragile environment.

KDNG, whose field workers regularly visit the Hukaung Valley, has also received similar reports regarding the possible extinction of the region’s tiger population “Over the past few years hunters have not seen tiger footprints in the valley and this is not a surprise because of the large environmental destruction in the valley,” Ah Nan told The Irrawaddy.

Since becoming involved in the valley, WCS and its partner organization Panthera, a tiger-focused conservation group, have reported that the biggest threat to the region’s tigers was from local villagers and hunters. Both groups have failed to make a direct mention of Yuzana or the firm’s allies in the military who were busy expropriating land, chopping down trees and destroying the tiger habitat, a clear and deliberate oversight say WCS’s critics. WCS failed to respond to repeated requests from The Irrawaddy regarding the current status of the tiger reserve.

In an interview with AFP in June, one of the key players behind the reserve’s creation, WCS’s former Director of Science and Exploration Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, appeared to blame local Kachin people for the demise of tiger numbers in the valley.

“The tiger is still valuable and the indigenous people there such as the Lisu and the Kachin are very much tied into the Chinese trade, and they’ve been killing off tigers,” said Rabinowitz, who is now CEO of Panthera.

Like WCS, Panthera has so far failed to respond to questions regarding the fate of the tiger reserve. A lengthy 2004 The Irrawaddy article entitled “The Greening of a Dictatorship” was not well received by Rabinowitz . In his 2007 book recounting his efforts to save Burma’s tigers, Rabinowitz disputes concerns raised by the article’s author Zao Noam that WCS efforts were serving as a convenient fig leaf to mask Burma’s poor record on human rights and the environment.

WCS’s activities in the valley, in particular a program in which the group paid stipends to a largely Burman “wildlife police force” tasked ostensibly with protecting tigers from the local Kachin population, have drawn heavy criticism from activists opposed to the group funding gun-toting employees of the state.

But these concerns did not appears to bother Rabinowitz who in his book has a photo of himself handing over a stipend check to the chief of the Hukaung Valley wildlife police force. In order to protect tigers in the valley, “You need law enforcement, protection and guards—that’s the number one thing,” Rabinowitz told AFP.

Bawk Jar disagrees, although this may be a moot point as she believes there are no longer any tigers in the valley. “Using armed forces to protect the tigers or the forests is not a good idea because they will just take advantage of the local villagers and this isn’t good for them,” she said.

“The local people don’t trust the police and government officials because they see them as on the side of the army and business interests involved in land grabbing,” agreed Ah Nan.

Local villagers claim it is difficult to distinguish the tiger reserve’s guards or wildlife police from other government security personnel. Since Yuzana arrived in 2006, the valley has been awash in troops and similarly armed company workers. During the lead-up to the 2010 election, as the relationship between the KIO and Burma’s government worsened, Yuzana increased its own militia by arming 800 employees, many of whom are ex-military personnel, according to KDNG.

Both Bawk Jar and Ah Nan say the best way to save the environment in the Hukaung is for an inclusive discussion involving local villagers that resolves the land rights issue, and a serious effort on the part of the government to rein in Yuzana. Given the full blown civil war being waged in Kachin State, it is difficult to imagine such a dialogue taking place any time soon.