Last Stand for Rare Bird in Tanintharyi

By Nora Swe 11 March 2015

Twenty-eight years after one of the world’s rarest birds was rediscovered in Thailand, its finder Philip Round says that it has once again disappeared.

Now the Gurney’s Pitta will make a last stand in the Tanintharyi Region of Myanmar, where its habitat is under threat from palm oil and rubber plantations.

The shy bird which lives in lowland semi-evergreen forest was first recorded for science in southern Myanmar in 1875.

In the earlier part of the twentieth century most recorded sightings were in peninsular Thailand.

For many decades the bird was unseen. It was feared lost until 1986 when Philip Round and Uthai Treesucon caught a celebrated view of the brilliant-blue and yellow markings of a male bird in Krabi province.

The discovery made international news. Soon the Gurney’s Pitta was placed under protection. A range of Thai authorities and international and local organizations embarked on a quarter-century effort to save it.

But Mahidol University academic Philip Round has called the efforts an “utter failure.”

The bird was now “functionally extinct” in Thailand, he said. It has not been sighted there since February last year.

“Tragically, Gurney’s Pitta no longer has any future in Thailand… there can be no second chance,” he wrote in a paper for the most recent edition of the Siam Society’s Natural History Bulletin.

Thailand’s failure to protect low-lying forest habitat from land encroachment was the chief reason for the loss, Round said.

A repeat debacle in southern Myanmar would send the Gurney’s Pitta the way of the dodo, he warned.

Vulnerable Haven

Myanmar’s long isolation after 1962 meant that little was known about the Gurney’s Pitta in this country for more than a half century.

That changed in 2003, when Birdlife International researchers created a sensation with a report estimating that around 20,000 pairs may live in the Tanintharyi Region.

The researchers found birds were spread over a wider territory than expected but were still mainly confined to the extreme lowlands.

Conservationists celebrated the survival of the iconic species in Myanmar’s Sundaic lowland forests where it nests on the ground or in Salacca palm and forages among fallen leaves and undergrowth for earthworms, slugs and insects. The International Union for Conservation of Nature changed its listing from critically endangered to endangered.

But Tanintharyi is not yet a safe haven for the Gurney’s Pitta or other wildlife.

Vast areas of the region’s deep forest and associated low-lying forest are still home to iconic species such as tiger, elephant, tapir, black leopard and the Gurney’s Pitta.

The region is coming increasingly under the sights of a range of international organizations that regard it as of global conservation importance.

The World Wildlife Fund, Birdlife International, the Smithsonian, and Flora and Fauna International (FFI) are among those seeking to influence the government and others on land and conservation policies, including protection of biodiversity hotspots such as the proposed Lenya National Park.

But Tanintharyi is also the subject of one of the biggest reallocations of land for agribusiness in the country since 2010, according to a presentation in October 2014 by U Shwe Thein of the Land Core Group.

Less than a fifth of land allocated has yet to be planted in the area the previous military government envisaged as a powerhouse of commercial palm oil plantations that would help the nation reach self-sufficiency in edible oil. It would also be a center for rubber production.

Large swathes of former forest around the Myeik to Kawthaung road have been converted to profitable palm oil and rubber plantations.

But the majority of around 40 concessionaires of land for palm oil and rubber in Tanintharyi have failed either to plant or to operate their concessions successfully as most lacked the experience, manpower or will to fulfill the government’s requirements.

That has reduced or postponed the number of land conflicts in the area so far. Meanwhile Myanmar’s palm oil plantation concessionaires are being encouraged to engage with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, an international organization which certifies companies that adhere to a range of environmental and social standards, said Frank Momberg of FFI.

Some local companies “have shown interest in this. They see the benefits,” Momberg said.

But the melancholy fate of the Gurney’s Pitta in Thailand suggests that only extremely robust conservation measures can protect vulnerable biodiversity hotspots from commercial pressures.

Lowland forest habitat favored by the Gurney’s Pitta is “always at a premium for housing, agriculture, and plantations,” said Round.

“The bottom line is that you need to preserve large and viable contiguous areas of lowland forests,” Round told The Irrawaddy.

“It took the Thais all of 129 years to lose Gurney’s Pitta,” he said, “but it could be gone from Myanmar in only another 20.”

This article first appeared in the March 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.