Myanmar ecosystems protected only on paper
By Denis D. Gray, AP
April 7, 2014, 12:02 am TWN
LAMPI ISLAND, Myanmar -- 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 toward a sign planted on the shore reading "Lampi National Park."
Some 50 meters behind it, secreted among the tangled growth, lies the trunk of an illegally felled tree. Nearby, a trap has been set to snare mouse deer. And just across the island, within park boundaries, the beach and sea are strewn with plastic, bottles and other human waste from villagers.
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 comprehensive survey funded by the European Union.
So rangers rarely see a tiger in the 21,891-square-kilometer (8,452-square-mile) 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-kilometer marine gem. It had been, and still largely remains, a do-as-you-please place.