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Large-scale agricultural projects in northwestern Kachin State’s Hukawng Valley are seriously threatening tiger numbers in Burma, while mass deforestation and armed conflict are making conservation efforts nearly impossible.
The valley covers 21,890 square kilometers and is officially a protected nature reserve. The Burmese government claims the area is the largest tiger reserve in the world.
But it is widely contested that the tigers have all but vanished due to agriculture projects that have been allowed to operate in the protected area.
“In the past, people were afraid of tigers. But nowadays, it’s the other way around. The tigers are living in fear of us, trying to avoid running into us,” said Saw Mon Theint, chairperson of the Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association.
In 2007, the Yuzana company began a huge biofuel project in the Hukawg Valley. According to Kachin activists, 200,000 acres of land was seized from farmers to make way for the massive plantations.
Large swathes of forest were cleared and much of the tigers’ habitat was destroyed.
“When we say habitats, it is not just jungle but also grassland,” said Saw Htoo Thar Poe, national coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society in Burma.
“The landscape has now been modified to suit large-scale commercial agriculture projects.”
Armed conflict in the region between the Kachin Independence Organisation and the Burmese government means that conservation efforts in the valley have been suspended.
Hla Naing, from the Wildlife Conservation Society said his team is not equipped to deal with working in those conditions.
“We don’t even have the necessary equipment for conservation work – all we carry is a backpack, rations and a machete,” he said. “With two sides fighting each other in this area we could easily get caught in the crossfire.”
It is estimated that there are as few as 70 tigers left in the entire country; reports indicate that no one has seen a tiger in the Hukawng Valley for several years.
If large investment projects continue to have free rein in this remote region, the results will undoubtedly be devastating for the tiger population of Burma.