World's Largest Tiger Reserve Created in Myanmar

March 16, 2004

Read the full story and view images on the National Geographic Magazine Web site >>

The world's most ambitious project to establish a protected region for tigers to escape extinction has been given official approval by the Myanmar (Burma) government.

The signing of the document by Myanmar leaders more than triples the size of the 2,500-square-mile (6,500-square-kilometer) Hukawng Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, which was established in 2001. The increase in size will expand the sanctuary to an area more than twice the size of Yellowstone National Park in the U.S.—or nearly as large as the state of Vermont.

"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 Alan Rabinowitz, director of science and exploration for the Wildlife Conservation Society. Rabinowitz has been leading the effort to set up this unique preserve to help ensure the survival of tigers in this remote area.

Now that the Myanmar government has given its official nod, the long, hard work of conservation now begins, Rabinowitz says. 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 coordinated—not just for the wildlife, but to help the human population there survive, too.

This still largely uncharted region of the world is home to Asian elephants, leopards, Himalayan black bears, wild boars, and the sambar deer, a delicacy for wide-ranging tigers. With all the wildlife now under protection, the natural abundance of the valley could allow not only a resurgence of the tiger population but also an opportunity for the whole region to thrive in a near-primal state, says Rabinowitz.

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 region—a remnant of the thousands of the majestic and elusive creatures that 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 pattern of each tiger's stripes is different, the researchers say they were able to distinguish between individuals and thus create an accurate census.

Read more on this story: Our National Geographic magazine online update features an interview with Alan Rabinowitz, field notes, images, video, and a forum.

For more on tigers, scroll down for related stories and links.

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