Life In The Valley Of Death: The fight to save tigers in a land of guns, gold and greed
December 2009: I read Life in the Valley of Death in one sitting, late into the night. And after I finished, my head was so abuzz with the fate of the tiger, that it was dawn before I was able to sleep. Actually, not just because of the fate of the tiger, but also because of the epic battles the author of the book had to fight in his own head, before plunging into the complicated political and social minefield of Myanmar politics.
Apart from looking through a literary window into of one the least-known tiger populations on our planet, I was blown by the matter of fact way in which Alan wrote about what must be one of the world’s most unique, difficult, but (the jury is still out) successful tiger conservation campaigns. The scene of action is the famous Hukawang Valley, now the world’s largest tiger reserve, through which the British had cut the Stilwell Road to link Northeast India with China during World War II. Here in this place the world forgot, working on behalf of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and with Myanmarese colleagues, Alan somehow managed to get Myanmar’s military regime to declare a 7,700 square mile tiger reserve, which has forests around it that reach all the way to India’s Namdapha Tiger Reserve.
In August 2004 the Director of Wildlife, Khin Maung Zaw pushes through approval for yet another new protected area: Bumphabum Wildlife Sanctuary, 719 square miles along the eastern boundary of the Hukawang Valley, encompassing both sides of the Kumon mountain range. It is an area rich in wildlife, with signs of tiger traffic from the Hukawang Valley. Now the world’s largest tiger reserve is also contiguous with three other protected areas: Bumphabum Wildlife Sanctuary, Hponkan Razi Wildlife Sanctuary and Hkakabo Razi National Park. And on the other side of the border, in India’s state of Arunachal Pradesh, both the Hukawang and Hponkan Razi parks are connected to the largest tiger reserve in India, Namdapha National Park, another 760 square miles.
I propose to the Forest Department that they formally designate the four contiguous protected areas on their side of the border as Myanmar’ Northern Forest Complex, totaling nearly 12,000 square miles, larger than Belgium and nearly the size of the state of Maryland in the United States. This was the dream I had when first flying over this region: an enormous, intact landscape containing tropical rain forest with tigers, clouded leopards, and Asian elephants in the same protected complex with snowcapped Himalayan mountains harbouring red panda, musk deer and takin.
How utterly different the Myanmar situation is to the one we must deal with in India. Both countries must contend with the poaching trade and human demands for land, but the tigers of Myanmar must also deal with thousands of hunters who will shoot them if they can. And snare any sambar, or wildboar, the tiger’s prime prey, if they can. It gets more complicated. Though an uneasy truce prevails between the military and armed Kachin insurgents, with whom the military had been at war for decades, the tiger’s survival in Hukawang depends on support from both the Kachin Independent Army (KIA) and Myanmar’s military regime. This, as anyone who has read Alan’s book or is familiar with Myanmar knows, is easier said than done.
I have a much better feel now for the KIA and their relationship with the ruling regime. In the 1960s they controlled large areas of northern Myanmar and were considered the most formidable insurgent force in the country, but that heyday is over. And unfortunately, the idea that they control their own destiny and the land they still administer is also no longer true. But it could be true in the Hukawang Valley, if we protect the land, manage the resources, and promote the economies of the local communities. The alternative, in my mind, is watching outside interests take over and destroy the valley. This would also destroy the Kachin culture.
As we in India are also slowly discovering, there can be no escape from poverty for the people of any country if their natural resources are destroyed in the hope that this will usher in ‘development’. Contrary to the criticism heaped gratuitously on WCS and on Alan, they not only understood this to be true for Myanmar, but also asked that the quality of life of local communities be enhanced when they helped tiger habitats to regenerate:
While the primary purpose of my work is to conserve wildlife and wild habitats, I would be courting failure if I did not consider the lives and livelihoods of the local people who live with that wildlife. If any conservation effort is to be sustainable, the people most affected must view themselves as its beneficiaries, not its victims. This does not mean that when there are human – wildlife or land use conflicts, people should always get their way. It means that for the most important human issues – education, health, and food security – positive improvements made to people’s lives should be linked to the protected areas or to other conservation efforts that affect them.
In more ways than one, Life in the Valley of Death is the story of Myanmar itself; a nation ruled by a military leadership that has imprisoned Aung San Su Kyii and is at daggers drawn with the United States (and most of the free world). While some people are prepared to write Alan Rabinowitz and the WCS off as “collaborators”, the truth is they both had to climb huge internal mountains and it took great courage to allow themselves to become defenseless targets for human rights activists, the local resistance movement and millions of very good and decent people across the world whose lives are dominated by injustice today, not extinction tomorrow.
Thus his poignant response to critics:
If wildlife conservation has first to be considered through political filters, then where should I work in the world? And when did animals get to vote and decide what governments they must live or die under?
In the event, as I turned page after page, I found myself wondering what I would do were I in his place. One option would be to retreat to New York, walk in Central Park, order pizzas at home and see Broadway productions. Most of the world actually lives out that plot. Alan Rabinowitz has instead chosen to climb his ‘Mount Analogue’ (I will let you read the book to understand that reference) and battle his own devils, which included dealing with chronic lymphatic leukemia or CLL.
So… against medical advice, at great personal cost, he plunged into the maelstrom that is Myanmar and took upon himself the responsibility of trying to convince Lisu, Rawang and Kachin activists, Naga tribals, town officials, the military junta, journalists, American civil rights activists and even many conservation colleagues that not battling to save Myanmar’s tiger populations was unthinkable.
Thus it was that in November 2002 for the very first time in recent Myanmar history, Alan and his incredible Myanmarese team of wildlife biologists and activists got 100 people in a room to discuss how to protect the Hkakabo Razi National Park, a 1,500 sq. mile area of Himalayan wildlife that few foreigners had ever seen. The agenda? How to save the wildlife and forests of the area, which was the ultimate heritage of the people. Also, how the proposed Hukawang Valley Tiger Reserve (two per cent of the total land area of Myanmar) might be managed. If this sounds routine, particularly to Indian wildlifers, consider that it is still illegal anywhere in Myanmar to hold an assembly of more than five people, for any reason whatsoever. Yet, despite simmering discontent, all sides of the political divide spent the better part of the day arguing about how to create corridors, how to count tigers and how to stop bush meat from being taken from tiger habitats.
Against the odds, WCS eventually managed to get a commitment to set aside a 2,500 sq. mile parcel of tropical forest land in the Hukawang Valley where commercial exploitation would be stopped. Then, incredibly, senior Myanmar government officials themselves said: ‘If this area is so special, why not set up the whole valley as a tiger preserve?’ That is how an additional area came to be declared a tiger reserve. In Alan’s words: “If we can design a tiger reserve where there is a core, inviolate sanctuary,” he says, “but the other huge areas of forest can be multi-use areas – for rattan collection, maybe even some local hunting if they need to – and there will be staff in there controlling this, we can make this area work.”
But how many tigers are there in the Hukawang Valley? Here is what Alan writes:
Saw Htoo Tha Po hands me a thick envelope filled with contact sheets containing three months of photographs from the camera traps set up in selected jungle areas of the wildlife sanctuary. This first effort will give a density estimate of tigers inside the core of what we hope will end up to be a much larger tiger reserve… If a viable breeding population of tigers has not been able to survive in the sanctuary; the chances of finding a larger number of tigers in other parts of the valley are slim.
Using a magnifying glass, I go through the photographs quickly, then start again from the beginning looking over each picture much more carefully a second and sometimes a third time.. “What are the numbers?” I ask, referring to a more detailed analysis of the photos that was done before my arrival. We estimate one to two tigers per hundred square miles, maybe 25 to 50 in the sanctuary. May be 80 to 100 in the whole valley.
I turn the numbers over in my mind... Cutting then in half would yield a safer, more conservative estimate... some tiger reserves with similar habitats in parts of India, by comparison, have at least ten times the tiger density we are seeing. But even if we are dealing with only 20 to 25 in the core sanctuary and twice that many in the whole (Hukwang) valley, we have enough of a population to build up on.”
It is my considered view that when the military regime in Myanmar gives way to the democracy movement, Alan Rabinowitz and the WCS will be remembered as heroes who helped patriots within Myanmar to protect the heritage of the people of Myanmar.
Also by the same author: Beyond the Last Village; Jaguar, one man's struggle to establish the world's first jaguar preserve and Chasing the Dragon's Tail – the struggle to save Thailand's wild cats. All published by Shearwater.
Published by: Island Press / Shearwater Books.
Hard Cover, 230 pages,
Rs. 850/- (approx.)
Reviewed by Bittu Sahgal