Conservation Location of the Week – Northern Burma

It’s a center of endemism, deep in the forested slopes of the highest mountains on earth; it shelters a huge number of endangered animals, as well as some of the world’s most beautiful scenery. The Eastern Himalaya is a fascinating place, the convergence of two different worlds: the snow, ice, rocks, and winds of the high mountains, and the humid, lush, green, tropical rainforest. Here, the biodiversity is like no place else, and the wildlife community is among the most unique found anywhere on Earth. Northern Burma is a land of steep mountains, craggy peaks and glaciers, and impenetrable hill forests. Few have ever visited, and we still know very little about this place. The vast state of Kachin, practically cut off from the outside world, and plagued with civil war, shelters tribal culture, remote wilderness, and rare wildlife. Of all these areas though, the Hkakaborazi Range, in the north, crowned by the Eastern Himalaya’s highest peak, the ranges namesake, Mt. Hkakaborazi, may just be the greatest of them all.

The journey begins in the remote, vast, and unexplored Hukawng Valley, recently declared a tiger reserve. While this area possesses a relatively safer status, poaching and logging are still rampant; the whole pristine region is at threat for conversion for agriculture. The valley though, still contains rare wildlife in its most remote areas. Some of the rarest inhabitants of SE asian forests – Sun Bears, Clouded Leopards, Marbled and Asiatic Golden Cats, Hog Badgers, Leaf Muntjacs, Eastern Hoolock Gibbons, Asiatic Elephants, Wild Water Buffalo, and more – still cling on (their only other stronghold in the region is Namdapha NP, just across the border in India). It’s thought that there may still be a handful of Bengal Tigers still in this vast wilderness. The Hukawng Valley was the last stand for the now critically endangered Sumatran Rhinoceros in mainland Asia, which now only occurs in Borneo and Sumatra. Traveling north, the lowland forests give way to thick, montane coniferous forests, dominated by rare firs and pines with a thick understory. The terrain drastically changes too, with lowlands giving way to rugged foothills. This is perhaps the most diverse region in the whole Himalaya. The wildlife of different worlds – North, South, East, and West meets here, and interacts like no other in one of Asia’s, if not the worlds, richest wildlife communities. The list of mammals here goes on and on – (endemic) Mishmi Takin, Asiatic Wild Dogs,  (both endemic) Gongshan and Leaf Muntjacs, Black Musk Deer (endemic), Himalayan and (endemic) Red Serow, (endemic) Red Goral, Clouded Leopards, Asiatic Golden and Marbled Cats, Leopards, Asiatic Black Bears, Malayan Sun Bears, Himalayan Black Bears, Red Pandas, Flying Squirrels, Spotted Linsangs (rare civet-like animals), Binturongs, (endemic) Eastern Hoolock Gibbons, Capped Langur, (endemic) the little known Shortridge’s Langur, and the recently discovered (first photographed in 2010!) Burma Snub-nosed Monkey, one of the most endangered, least-known, and elusive primates on Earth which is only found in these hill forests. Once above the tree line, we enter habitat more characteristic of the Himalaya. Wildlife up here has to be adapted to some of the harshest conditions on Earth. Alpine Musk Deer, Chinese Goral, Blue Sheep, and the legendary Snow Leopard, are some of the few mammals that can scrape out a living here.

In a cruel twist of fate though, these forests, occurring in one of the most remote, unknown parts of one of the most isolated nations on Earth, are at great risk. A recent Chinese mining project plans to construct roads through the virgin hill forests, putting all of the rare inhabitants of these areas at risk. If the populations here of many of the species disappear, it might as well be the end for several rare species, which will be forced to cling onto fragmented pockets of habitat in their western extent, in Arunachal Pradesh (here they are endangered too). The only way to save these animals, and many more, is to advocate the establishment of large, well protected forest reserves and national parks here – this will be the only way to protect what little is left of one of very few relatively intact, pristine, biodiverse ecosystems on Earth. With the “new” Burma opening up to the international world after years of secrecy, one can only hope for changes for the better. There is cause to hope for a different fate for this area: Burmese protesters are trying to rally support for these fascinating region, and hope to provide it the protection it deserves. While I do not agree with most of their actions, particularly violence, I hope that whether or not it is caused by them, protected areas do become established and such ill-planned, executed, and dangerous mining projects be outlawed. May protection come quickly and properly to these amazing wildernesses.

Until next time,

Venkat

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