Hukaung Valley – Officials from Myanmar formally announced today that the entire Hukaung Valley would be declared a Protected Tiger Area. The declaration officially protects an area the size of Vermont and marks a major step forward in saving one of the most endangered species on the planet – the tiger – which numbers less than 3,000 in the wild.
Isolated in Myanmar, the Hukaung Valley Tiger Reserve stretches approximately 8,452 square miles in the northernmost part of the country. The Valley is known as a tiger reserve with the potential of holding several hundred tigers, but illegal hunting both of tigers and their prey has caused a steep decline in their numbers with some estimates showing as few as 50 of the big cats in the region.
In 2004, the Myanmar government designated 2,500 square miles of the Hukaung Valley as an inviolate wildlife sanctuary, based off of the first ever biological expedition of the area in 1999 led by Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, currently CEO of the wild cat conservation group Panthera, and staff from the Forest Department and the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Myanmar Program.
The designation extends the protected area an additional 4,248 square miles, and is the result of many years of hard work engaging local ethnic groups, recent settlers, and local businesses to agree to their townships becoming multi-use areas, in a way that serves their needs and that of wildlife in the region. The resulting wildlife sanctuary stretches 6, 748 miles and makes up the core of the Hukaung Valley Tiger Reserve.
Highly unprecedented, the designation was enacted after Myanmar Prime Minister Thein Sein gathered 17 other Cabinet Ministers to fly to Hukaung Valley earlier this year r to assess its conservation needs and convey the importance of the region for tigers, and other species.
The designation protects some of the last expanses of closed forest in the Indo-Pacific region and is one of the most important ecosystems, including wetlands, for the long-term conservation of large mammals such as tigers, clouded leopards, and Asian elephants. Approximately 370 bird species, including the critically endangered Rufous-necked Hornbill, have been found in the region and of the current global estimate of 13,500 plant species, approximately 7,000 are found in the Hukaung Valley and nowhere else on the planet.
“I have dreamt of this day for many years,” said Rabinowitz. “The strides we made in 2004 were groundbreaking, but protecting this entire valley to ensure tigers are able to live and roam freely is a game changer. This reserve is one of the most important stretches of tiger habitat in the world, and I am thrilled that the people and government of Myanmar understand the importance of preserving it.”
Rabinowitz acknowledged the contributions of Ambassador Joseph Verner Reed, Under-Secretary General and Special Advisor at the United Nation for his steadfast support for the designation. “Ambassador Reed’s consistent efforts in relaying the importance of this area and the urgency for formal government protection to Myanmar authorities played a crucial role in making this project a reality,” he said.
“Myanmar now offers one of the best hopes for saving tigers in Southeast Asia,” said Colin Poole, Director for Wildlife Conservation Society’s Asia Programs. “The newly expanded protected area in the Hukaung Valley will be a cornerstone of tiger conservation throughout this iconic big cat’s range.”
As recently as one hundred years ago, up to 100,000 tigers roamed the forests and grasslands of Asia, but today less than 3,000 tigers survive in the wild. In the past few years alone, some tiger populations have been completely eliminated, even from what were considered to be well-protected areas.
The world’s remaining tiger populations exist in small, isolated fragments that are constantly threatened by the illegal hunting of tigers and their prey. The Hukaung Valley reserve joins a number of other areas of existing and potential tiger habitat that exist in many parts of Asia. Scientists and conservationists believe that tigers can make a comeback if the most critical threats to their existence – poaching of the cats themselves and their prey – are addressed effectively and immediately.
In order to bolster tiger populations in the wild, range state leaders, donor nations and multilateral institutions will come together to celebrate the culmination of the Global Tiger Initiative at a historic Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia this fall to make firm commitments to doubling the number of tigers by 2022. U.S. government leadership and participation will be critical to the success of this effort given its historic investment to on the ground tiger conservation through programs at several U.S. federal agencies. Organizations such as WCS and Panthera have promoted protecting areas that have viable tiger populations, known as tiger Source Sites and is seeking recognition and protection of these key sites through greater U.S. government attention and international community commitment to tigers at the upcoming Summit.
Jennifer Mullin, Panthera
Stephen Sautner, Wildlife Conservation Society
The wild cat conservation group Panthera was founded in 2006 with the sole mission of conserving the world's 36 species of wild cats. By pairing sound science with decades of first hand field experience, Panthera’s researchers collect and convert data into pragmatic conservation actions that continue to produce results in the countries where they operate. Panthera applies a strict filter to all of their conservation programs that assesses what wild cats need to survive, what strategies have a proven track record, and what is possible on the ground and in-country. Visit www.panthera.org.
The Wildlife Conservation Society saves wildlife and wild places worldwide. We do so through science, global conservation, education and the management of the world's largest system of urban wildlife parks, led by the flagship Bronx Zoo. Together these activities change attitudes toward nature and help people imagine wildlife and humans living in harmony. WCS is committed to this mission because it is essential to the integrity of life on Earth.