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Myanmar shines with intact forest, but will this biodiversity be conserved?

By JW. Dowey - 19 May 2017 9:15:0 GMT
Myanmar shines with intact forest, but will this biodiversity be conserved?

Myanmar is often best remembered for the proliferating Burmese python, Python bivittatus, but new research has revealed many threatened species and lots of primary forest remaining in the isolated mountains. There are also great populations of elephant, tiger, deer and other giants, totally wiped out elsewhere in Asia! Python bivittatus image; Credit: © Shutterstock

Tejas Bhagwat of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute is the lead author of a May 17th paper giving an astute picture of rainforest loss. While Myanmar undoubtedly provides more raw jungle than denuded Thailand, Vietnam or Malaysia, the entrepreneurs, often under official guise, are already in place, ready to log. This important paper, combined with news of tiger and other species surviving in parts of SE Asia, should give us insight into extreme conservation measures required in this area.

While the Amazon often seems lost in unlicenced take-overs, depending on the nation involved, Africa and Asia’s forests are also shrinking fast, whether primary or not. Losing a jewel—Rapid declines in Myanmar’s intact forests from 2002-2014 is the title of this multi-author revelation from Myanmar in the open access journal, PLOS One.

The people involved hail from the University of Bayreuth, Germany, the American Museum of Natural History and Yangon as well as the Smithsonian (Virginia, US.) 6.1 million hectares of intact and forest with canopy cover are being protected within the 42 million ha of Myanmar forest, which remarkably still covers 63% of the country (in 2014.) This extent of forest is mainly in the north, near the Indian border, or near the Thai reserves near Tanintharyi. The threats at the moment consist of loggers, plantations (the usual oil-palm, rubber and sugar cane, as well as betel nut and banana) and human degradation (using fuel, etc.) near settlements. 70% of the population live in forests and other rural areas, making them a major threat. More of the energy, illegal open-pit mining and construction industries are expected to have effects in the near future.

Isolation of both the nation and the forests is a major factor. Only Landsat satellite images give a neutral view of spectral changes in their image. This enabled studies from 2002 to the present, or at least 2014. The intact forest was revealed largely in Kachin, Sagaing, Tanintharyi, Shan, and Chin, all mountainous regions, but the losses here are quite considerable.

9 local hotspots, near towns, were identified where losses of this pristine forest were concentrated. In addition, the mangroves of the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) Delta have suffered terribly from aquaculture projects. 26% of the loss was from plantations in places like Shan State. The Northern Forest Complex (in Hukuang and the Mountain Forest, Taungthonlon Mountains and Htamanhti Forests) and the Southern Forest Complex which has a further 1.7million ha. Loss of these forests has accelerated especially in the last 10 years, with an average of 11% loss. Currently the loss of even degraded forest is an annual 0.29%.

The ribbon development followed in a pattern found in both the Amazon and the Congo, gives drastic losses near new roads, rivers and commercial plantations. Access obviously leads to serious conservation losses, particularly along the river basins of the Uru and Chinwin in Sagaing and along the Thai border roads and pipelines.

Diversity is often touted as a prime quality of areas from South America to the Mediterranean. In Myanmar however, the extreme plant and small animal biodiversity is complemented by the remaining presence of large endangered populations of leaf deer, woolly bat, tapir, tiger, Panther tigris corbetti and the bird known as Gurney’s pitta, Hydrornis gurneyi. Local endangered elephant populations have human conflict issues in Tanintharyi.. Newly discovered species include a cobra, Naja mandalayensis and amphibians like Bufo crocus. What becomes of this now-delicate set of ecosystems gives us a picture of a crossroads. As a stronghold of Asian biodiversity, these primary forests are essential to conservation, but control here is almost non-existent. We have seen what happened when military men cut down much of Thailand’s forests for pure profit. The situation here is not a million miles away from that sad history.

Reforms suggested in land ownership, environmental planning, and even government may be disregarded, unless NGOs and lots of money are ploughed into prevention of these exploiters actions as well as pure conservation. The process has indeed begun, but open data needs to provide the necessary transparency. Maybe on this occasion, it is the grassroots that may provide the efforts within the regions that will be required. Danger exists both to the species involved and the people who take this mission in their hands.

We can only hope that enough international and national initiatives continue, as with this excellent review!