The Burmese government has declared a large area of the Hukaung Valley in Kachin state as the world’s largest tiger reserve and the largest protected area in Southeast Asia.
Around 20,000 square kilometres has been designated for the remote northern reserve, which is set to become one of the few remaining habitats of tigers in the whole region. The once-populous tiger is now rated amongst the world’s most endangered animals, with numbers heavily diminished through habitat loss and hunting.
Despite its size, Hukaung may possess only a hundred tigers. The area is the source of the Chindwin river and it was through these malaria-infested jungles that the famed Ledo Road ran, supplying the allies during the Second World War in their fight against Japan.
The area was first highlighted in 2004 after it was discovered to be only one of three areas where tigers remain in significant numbers. Hukaung Valley is also home to a number of other rare or endangered animals, including leopards, Himalayan bears and elephants.
The reserve is part-controlled by the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) and combined with the disputed sovereignty and the reclusive central government.
Much of the success of the project seems to be owed to US biologist Alan Rabinowitz, who has long campaigned for the protection of Burma’s wildlife. He founded the big cat protection organisation, Panthera, and is credited with discovering the Muntiacus putaoensis, or leaf deer, considered one of the most ‘primitive’ deer species in the world.
Despite his achievements he has faced challenges from the Burmese government, democracy activists and the KIO. He said in 2007 that “We can get some of the biggest conservation achievements done in communist countries and in military dictatorships”.