Conflict threatens Myanmar’s dwindling tiger population

A wild tiger is seen in the upper Chindwin River area in 2016 in a photo captured by a camera trap. Photo: WCS Myanmar
A wild tiger is seen in the upper Chindwin River area in 2016 in a photo captured by a camera trap. Photo: WCS Myanmar

Ethnic conflict in Myanmar’s forested regions threatens wild tigers, and ending conflict is key to protecting them, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) announced last week, ahead of International Tiger Day.

The group specifically pointed to conflict between the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw) and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in the vicinity of the Hukawng Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, which spans 17,373 square kilometers in Kachin State, Naga Autonomous Region, and Sagaing Region, making it the world’s largest tiger reserve.

Conservation groups such as WCS, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and Flora and Fauna International (FFI) have spent years conducting research in the area and training local villagers to take part in conservation initiatives. Over 130 trainees have joined the program since 2016.

“We provide the community with conservation training, allowing for community participation, which is the key,” said WCS Myanmar research assistant Pyae Phyoe Kyaw.

However, fighting in the area has forced villagers to flee for their lives, obstructing the conservation efforts and leaving tigers vulnerable to poachers and deforestation.

“They have not been able to devote themselves to preserving wildlife,” said WCS country director Than Myint. “If the fighting eased, we could strengthen our preservation efforts…We hope for a decent peace in the region, so that they can stay in their homes and participate in preservation projects, as the villagers play a vital role in wildlife conservation.”

Myanmar’s wild tiger population is estimated to be less than 100, down from around 150 in 2003. The global population was dropped from around 100,000 to less than 4,000 over the last century.

WCS Myanmar monitors the tiger population and its prey with over 100 camera traps in the valley. Sightings of several tiger cubs over the last few years have led the organization to say there is “hope for success for tiger conservation in Myanmar.”

However, poaching, illegal wildlife trading, and illegal logging and mining, all enabled by instability and conflict, still pose significant threats to the already endangered species. The organization has said that protecting tigers requires the public to be involved in protecting forests, wildlife, and the environment.

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