A Valley of Tigers

August 4, 2010

The Myanmar government creates a Protected Tiger Area as large as Vermont in the country's northern forests. The Hukaung Valley Tiger Reserve provides sanctuary to a wide range of species, from big cats to small birds, along with many rare plants.

In the northernmost stretches of Myanmar, a valley exists where tigers can just be tigers. Country officials have declared the entire Hukaung Valley a Protected Tiger Area. With 8,452 square miles in which to roam, hunt, and hopefully breed, the region’s remaining tigers have a chance too few of their kind currently enjoy.

Faced with poaching, habitat loss, and conflict with farming communities, tigers are one of the most endangered species on Earth. Just a century ago, up to 100,000 tigers roamed the forests and grasslands of Asia. Today, there are fewer than 3,000 wild tigers left, living in small, isolated fragments of habitat. In the past few years alone, entire tiger populations have disappeared, even from what were once considered well-protected areas. Those that remain are constantly threatened by illegal hunting, which also reduces their prey.

“Myanmar now offers one of the best hopes for saving tigers in Southeast Asia,” said Colin Poole, director for WCS-Asia. “The newly expanded protected area in the Hukaung Valley will be a cornerstone of tiger conservation throughout this iconic big cat’s range.”

The isolated Hukaung Valley Tiger Reserve, which is about the size of Vermont, could potentially support several hundred tigers. Currently, conservationists estimate that as few as 50 tigers survive in the area.

In 1999, staff from Myanmar’s Forest Department and WCS-Myanmar, together with Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, currently CEO of the wild cat conservation organization Panthera, participated in the first ever biological expedition of the Hukaung Valley. Their work helped lead to the 2004 decision by Myanmar's government to designate 2,500 square miles of the valley as a wildlife sanctuary.

“I have dreamt of this day for many years,” said Rabinowitz. “The strides we made in 2004 were groundbreaking, but protecting this entire valley to ensure tigers are able to live and roam freely is a game changer. This reserve is one of the most important stretches of tiger habitat in the world, and I am thrilled that the people and government of Myanmar understand the importance of preserving it.”

The latest designation extends the protected area by an additional 4,248 square miles. The expansion is the result of years of work with local community groups, recent settlers, and businesses to transform local townships into multi-use areas that serve the needs of both people and wildlife.

The designation of the last expanses of closed forest in the Indo-Pacific region as a protected area is a boon to other species, too. The valley shelters large mammals such as clouded leopards and Asian elephants. Approximately 370 bird species, including the critically endangered rufous-necked hornbill, live in the region, and many rely on its important wetlands. Impressively, about 7,000 plant species grow in the Hukaung Valley and nowhere else on the planet.

Tiger-range state leaders, donor nations and multilateral institutions will come together this fall in St. Petersburg, Russia at a summit meeting, where they will make firm commitments to double the number of tigers in the wild by 2022. U.S. government leadership and participation will be critical to the success of this effort. Organizations such as WCS and Panthera have promoted protecting areas with viable tiger populations—known as "tiger source sites"—and are seeking recognition and protection for these areas via greater federal attention and an international commitment to saving tigers.

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