Friday, August 6, 2010

Tigers bring political foes together

Friday, 06 August 2010 14:10 Mizzima News

Chiang Mai (Mizzima) – In a domestic political environment often characterized by animosity and antagonism, one of the world’s endangered big cats has managed to bring competing blocks in Burma together in a common cause.

On Tuesday, the Burmese government announced the expansion of the world’s largest tiger reserve in the remote Hukawng Valley in the northwest of the country by an additional 4,248 square miles.

The realization of the expanded safe haven for tigers was only made possible through the joint efforts of the Burmese government, Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and an American activist.

Alan Rabinowitz, presently CEO and President of Panthera, a wild cat conservation organization based in New York City, has dedicated the past ten years to fieldwork and conservation projects in Burma.

During the course of his work Rabinowitz held talks with representatives from both the KIA and Burmese government. He describes both groups as being extremely receptive to the idea of creating an expanded tiger reserve, crediting the pride felt by all persons involved in the region’s wildlife heritage.

In 2003, Rabinowitz, in conjunction with Burma’s Forest Department, established a network of infrared cameras to capture photographic evidence of tigers as they were hunted. The research revealed a mere 150 to 200 tigers estimated to still call the valley home, while global numbers are said to be under 3,000.

Poaching is expected to be a continuing obstacle, even with the demarcation of the reserve. At present Burma’s rangers are ill-trained to combat the lucrative trade in illicit hunting.

Moreover, as Rabinowitz points out, "At $200 per kilo, the profits from even a small tiger could be equivalent to ten years of income for many in this area.”

In addition to prized pelts, tiger bones and internal organs have long been used in various Asian medicines, with China providing the largest market.

The designation of the last expanses of closed forest in the Indo-Pacific region is also expected to benefit other animals such as clouded leopards and Asian elephants along with 370 bird species. Of 13,500 identified plant species, some 7,000 are only known to grow in Burma’s Hukawng Valley.

"What is even more impressive is that the additional lands adjoin three other wildlife protected zones that spread from the lowlands of Myanmar (Burma) northward to the Tibetan border and are contiguous with similar zones in India," Rabinowitz told National Geographic.

According to Rabinowitz, the size of the reserve is critical to the chances of success in growing and protecting tiger numbers. Tiger populations are said to thrive in a porous environment allowing for vast roaming.

Rabinowitz is the author of the 2007 publication, “Life in the Valley of Death: The Fight to Save Tigers in a Land of Guns, Gold, and Greed.” Based on his experiences working in Burma, the work drew criticism from some quarters for its perceived message of positive gains to be made from working with Burmese authorities.

(An earlier version of this story mistakenly listed Dr. Rabinowitz as currently employed by the Wildlife Conservation Society, though he is no longer with that organization.)

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