'Paper parks': Myanmar habitats where official protection is not worth the paper its written on

Official safeguards mean little for many of the country's wildlife havens

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 April, 2014, 6:16am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 April, 2014, 6:16am


Off a remote, glimmering beach backed by a lush tropical forest, Julia Tedesco skims the crystalline waters with mask and fins, looking for coral and fish life.

"There is almost nothing left down there," the environmental project manager says, wading towards a sign planted on the shore reading "Lampi National Park".

Some 50 metres behind it, secreted in the tangled growth, lies the trunk of an illegally felled tree. Nearby, a trap has been set to snare mouse deer. The beach and sea are strewn with plastic, bottles and other human waste.

The perilous state of Lampi, Myanmar's only marine park, is not unique. Though the country's 43 protected areas are among Asia's greatest bastions of biodiversity, encompassing snow-capped Himalayan peaks, dense jungles and mangrove swamps, they are to a large degree protected in name alone.

Park land has been logged, poached, dammed and converted to plantations as Myanmar revs up its economic engines and opens up to foreign investment after decades of isolation.

Of the protected areas, only half have even partial biodiversity surveys and management plans. At least 17 are described as "paper parks" - officially gazetted but basically uncared for - in a survey funded by the European Union.

So rangers rarely see a tiger in the 21,891-square-kilometre Hukaung Valley Tiger Reserve. It's the world's largest protected area for the big cats, but has been overrun by poachers supplying animal parts for traditional medicines in nearby China.

And Myanmar's first nature reserve, the Pidaung Wildlife Sanctuary set up in 1918, has been "totally poached out and should be degazetted", says Tony Lynam, a field biologist for the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society.

Inaugurated in 1996, Lampi fit squarely into the paper park category until possibly last year, when six rangers from the Forestry Department were finally assigned to protect this 204-square-kilometre marine gem.

Yet local residents and staff with Italian Instituto Oikos, the group Tedesco works for, say dynamite fishing persists even within earshot of the ranger station. They say trawlers encroach into no-fishing areas and that forest on one park island, Bocho, is being converted to rubber, encouraged by government policy.

Without any management plan in place, four settlements in the park and a fifth within a proposed buffer zone have grown dramatically and now total about 3,000 people, many of them migrants from the mainland.

Despite the ongoing depredations, the park retains an incredible variety of life, according to a report by Oikos and the Myanmese non-government group BANCA (Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association).

Its evergreen forests harbour 195 plant species, trees soaring as high as 30 metres, and many of the park's 228 bird species. Sea life ranges from dugongs to 73 different kinds of seaweed. Nineteen mammal species, seven of them globally threatened, are at home here, including macaques seen on rocky headlands hunting for some of the 42 crab species.

Naing Thaw, director of Myanmar's Forestry Department, says the government intends to expand the protected areas from 5.6 per cent of the country to 10 per cent by 2020. But he says authorities face "material, human resources and financial constraints" in turning the areas into viable havens for wildlife and natural habitat.