The world's most ambitious project to establish a protected region for tigers to escape extinction is not done with the nod of a head.
That's what Alan Rabinowitz, director of science and exploration for the Wildlife Conservation Society, reminds himselfand otherswhen he considers the challenges in helping Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, establish a tiger reserve the size of the state of Delaware.
Yet all it took was the stroke of a pen from the government in March to more than triple the size of the 2,500-square-mile (6,500-square-kilometer) Hukawng Valley Wildlife Sanctuary. The additional 5,500 square miles (14,250 square kilometers) of sanctuary will provide a buffer zone, insulating all the valley's wildlife from further environmental and predatory onslaughts.
"What is even more impressive is that the additional lands adjoin three other wildlife protected zones that spread from the lowlands of Myanmar northward to the
Tibetan border and are contiguous with similar zones in India," says Rabinowitz.
Combined, this area in Asia amounts to about 11,500 square miles (30,000 square kilometers)larger than Delaware, Connecticut, and Rhode Island combined.
This still largely uncharted region of the world is home to Asian elephants, leopards, Himalayan bears, wild boars, and the sambar deer, a prey for wide-ranging tigers. With all the wildlife now protected, the natural abundance of the valley could allow not only a resurgence of the tiger population, but the whole region could thrive in a near-primal state, he says.
"I view this as fertile ground not only capable of bringing whole tiger populations back, but it has the promise of seeding other areas as well," says Rabinowitz.
And now that the government has given its official nod, it means the long, hard work of conservation now begins, says Rabinowitz.
More rangers from the region must be trained as stewards of the land and enforcers of the laws. Help from the various international groups that have pledged to assist must be coordinatednot just for the wildlife, but to help the human population there survive, too.
Rabinowitz's enthusiasm for the future blots out much of the distress he first felt in 2003, after a tiger population survey revealed that no more than 150 to 200 tigers still roamed in the core Hukawng Valley regiona remnant of the thousands of the majestic and elusive creatures who once reigned supreme.
To arrive at that estimate, Rabinowitz, working with the Myanmar Forest Department, relied on a vast network of infrared-triggered camera traps that snapped pictures of tigers as they hunted. Since the patterns of each tiger's stripes are different, the researchers were able to distinguish between individuals, and thus create an accurate census.
However, the cameras also snapped pictures of the tigers' deadliest predator: humans.
Though tigers have been protected since the core sanctuary was established in 2001, hunters still poach the valley, preying on tigers to eke out a livelihoodand illicit profitsavailable from the worldwide trade in animal parts. Tiger skins, heads, and claws are prized as trophies, while the bones and internal organs are the source of homeopathic Asian medicines and potions.
With the relative economic boom in some Asian nations, the demand for real tiger bones has seen an upsurge recently. "It is a serious factor," says Rabinowitz. "At $200 (U.S.) per kilo (2.2 pounds), the profits from even a small tiger could be equivalent to ten years of income for many in this area. There is enormous pressure to hunt when people hear about the sighting of a tiger."
Not only poaching, but human encroachment threatens the animals since re-opening of the once infamous Ledo Road and the discovery of small pockets of gold in the valley. An influx of humans who slash and burn forests, who harvest bamboo, rattan, and aloes wood and who mine with high-pressure water hoses and use slurries of cyanide and mercury to expose traces of gold in the sludge, rob the habitat of the threatened tigers with each commercial enterprise.
"The threats are very real, and we have to get the protection in place now, so that we can start enforcement," says Rabinowitz.
Yet successful, sensitive conservation also means meeting human needs, he says, explaining that indigenous populations must be weaned off the forest economy with real economic incentives.
"Many conservation groups come in and tell people what they should do or what's in their best interest, with little or no follow-up. Often people don't listen. Why should they? We actually want to put things on the table," he said.
So now Rabinowitz, a man obsessed with saving a species, must proceed with the same caution and deliberateness of a hunter. Though he would like to rush ahead, the timing must be right. That progress depends on the pace of a stressed government dealing with other competing problems.
Instead of rushing straight to the sanctuary, Rabinowitz's trip in mid-March is to the capital, Yangon, to meet with officials in this politically complex nation who could ultimately determine the success of the sanctuary by their commitment to it.
"I think any field researcher who's been in a country long term will agree with me that you never escape politics with conservation. It's just something in which you deal with as part of the whole equation," he said.
The heart of this effort, though hardly begun, is hope and faith, he says.
Hope arrived as recently as February when the camera traps snared images of seven new tigers at four different sites within the boundaries of the newly expanded sanctuary.
Faith should follow soon. "All of this is really good news," says Rabinowitz. "It means that in time these animals will thrive once more in lands that have always been theirs."