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1 November 2008 A Place for Tigers
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From his perch as executive director of science and exploration at the Wildlife Conservation Society, Alan Rabinowitz traveled to remote areas in Asia and the American tropics for two decades. His mission: conservation of large cats. His formula: find remote areas large enough to support a viable population of his target large cat, jaguar or tiger; obtain a political buy-in at the highest levels of government for his vision of the conservation landscape; build the managerial capacity to manage these large areas; raise the funds to support all of the above; and then move on.

Rabinowitz has reported to his constituents in Jaguar: One Man's Struggle to Establish the World's First Jaguar Reserve, Chasing the Dragon's Tail: The Struggle to Save Thailand's Wild Cats, and Beyond the Last Village: A Journey of Discovery in Asian's Forbidden Wilderness. In Life in the Valley of Death, he continues this tradition, reporting on his fight to fashion a 22,000-square-kilometer tiger conservation landscape: the Hukawng Valley Tiger Reserve in northern Myanmar.

To an earlier generation of Westerners, the isolated Hukawng Valley—nicknamed “Valley of Death” because thousands of refugees died there while fleeing advancing Japanese forces in 1942—was notorious World War II turf. When the Japanese forces choked off the 1130-kilometer Burma Road to Kunming, China, isolating Chaing Kaishek's army, “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell resolved to reestablish the connection by retaking the Burma Road and connecting it with a new road, 770 kilometers long, leading from the Ledo railhead in Assam, India, and transecting the Hukawng Valley.

Rabinowitz tells intertwining stories, as in his earlier books. He recounts the fragile state of wild tigers in this age of globalization and exploding Asian economies. He narrates his “discovery” of the Hukawng Valley and describes how he convinced Myanmar's ruling generals that this denuded landscape pocked with exhausted gold mines could serve a larger purpose in the country's future. He outlines his vision, or what he calls “the question of balance,” in designing tiger conservation landscapes that meet the needs of tigers while also persuading the people who live there that, by agreeing to the conservation landscape, sufficient incentives will be created to make it in their best interest to become supporters and protectors of tigers rather than their killers. Through it all, Rabinowitz relates his personal life struggles in startlingly intimate detail, detracting from the focus on tiger conservation in an area seldom seen by outsiders.

The 1997 rangewide assessment of tiger distribution identified extreme northern Myanmar as a priority survey area because not enough was known about it to classify it otherwise. With his first expedition to the Hukawng Valley in 1999, Rabinowitz was smitten: “I have seen no other areas of this size anywhere in Asia in such pristine condition and with much of its wildlife seemingly intact” (p. 52). His survey teams had determined that tigers in Myanmar had been nearly extirpated, and the Hukawng was the best—the only—place where tigers could recover, if they were afforded protection.

Myanmar's director of wildlife, Khin Maung Zaw, and his staff established the 6500-square-kilometer Hukawng Valley Wildlife Sanctuary. They saw a larger, if more challenging, opportunity knocking, however, and so asked Rabinowitz for his help in presenting a bold plan to the minister of forestry for creating a tiger reserve that would encompass the entire valley. Forestry Minister Aung Phone agreed to the plan: “We must do whatever we have to in order to save tigers in my country. The Hukawng Valley is a big place, and there are many other interest[s] there. We will not move any people and you will have to work with them so that they benefit from the scheme as well.”

Minister Aung Phone was wise. People who live with tigers ultimately determine the cats' fate. They must see the tiger as a living asset if they are to coexist. This is experienced in few areas today, for several reasons: Tigers occupy only 7 percent of their historical range, and tiger-occupied areas have shrunk by 40 percent in the last decade. Protected areas are rarely large enough to ensure their survival. Tigers are an enforcement-dependent species, and protected areas with porous borders are seldom able to effectively prevent tiger poaching, which is driven by a growing demand for tiger parts from increasingly affluent East Asian markets. In practice, enforcement is weak, and poachers and traders are seldom brought to justice.

The best way forward for Myanmar's few remaining tigers lies in landscape-level conservation that combines protected areas for forests and wildlife with national and local development activities that improve people's lives. Rabinowitz realizes this. He describes the rapid changes in the economy of the valley he and his colleagues must confront. For example, a bridge was built to improve access. An advertising campaign launched by the Ministry of Mines induced 50,000 gold miners to come to the Hukawng Valley to get rich. Miners have to eat, so local hunting for wildlife intensified, draining the valley of the large mammalian prey that tigers need. Tiger poaching intensified. Timber and other resources were used to support the gold mining, and rivers became polluted from the mercury in the gold mining tailings. Rabinowitz saw that conservation results could be achieved only through the head of military intelligence, General Khin Nyunt, to whom he wrote, unbeknownst to his colleagues in the Forestry Ministry. Those colleagues were not pleased when military intelligence agents came knocking on their doors “requesting” files.

With General Khin Nyunt's approval, the Forest Minister signed the decree establishing the 22,000-square-kilometer Hukawng Valley Tiger Reserve in March 2004. The Kachin Independent Army (KIA), whose territory is located in the valley, was not pleased that they were not fully consulted in the declaration process—and the KIA is the regional force with the capability to control poaching of tigers and prey—yet after a stakeholders meeting, the KIA agreed to participate. Such meetings in which stakeholders gather to discuss joint management of large areas had not been the norm in Myanmar's recent history.

Meanwhile, Rabinowitz, never idle, proposed adding contiguous protected areas totaling 31,000 square kilometers in all, nearly the size of Maryland, to comprise Myanmar's Northern Forest Complex. Working with his forest department colleagues and with some significant support from the very top of the government, Rabinowitz in less than a decade turned an area recognized as one needing to be surveyed in 1997 into the largest complex of protected areas in South or East Asia. The question that remains is, can and will this complex be sustained now that Rabinowitz has moved on to other interests?

In conservation, there is no finish line, because political criteria change. Rabinowitz is philosophical about it: “The Hukawng Valley Tiger Reserve is like a living organism, needing to be watched over, nurtured, protected, and guided” (p. 195).

John Seidensticker "A Place for Tigers," BioScience 58(10), 990-991, (1 November 2008).
Published: 1 November 2008

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