Myanmar Cyclone a "Catastrophe" for Wildlife

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
May 14, 2008
The human tragedy resulting from the cyclone that struck Myanmar earlier this month is staggering, with perhaps 100,000 people dead or missing and 1.5 million people facing hunger and disease.

The cyclone's impact on the country's wildlife, however, is far less clear and may never be properly known, conservationists say.

Myanmar (also known as Burma) is home to a wide range of threatened species, including the critically endangered Irrawaddy river dolphins.

(Read related story: "River Dolphin Closer to Extinction Despite Reports, Experts Say" [March 21, 2007].)

While most threatened animals, including the dolphins, are found north of the river delta that was flooded by the cyclone, conservationists warn that the human needs resulting from the disaster could have a devastating impact on forests and wildlife.

"With what could be massive rice shortages in the country and an immediate need for new building materials, I am afraid that the forests and wildlife—even far from the damaged area—will eventually suffer," said Alan Rabinowitz, president of the New York-based conservation group Panthera who has worked in Myanmar for several decades.

"Hunting, non-forest product extraction, and logging are likely to increase, first in areas closest to the delta, and then make their way north."

Safe For Now

Myanmar is probably the most biodiverse country in Southeast Asia, according to Colin Poole, director of the Asia program for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

"It has a huge range of habitats from almost Himalaya[-like] mountains of the north right down to the lowland tropical forests of the south," Poole said.

"Large areas of these habitats still remain and have not been severely exploited."

Among the critically endangered animals in Myanmar are endemic species of rhinos and bats.

Myanmar is also home to Asian elephants, red pandas, capped leaf monkeys, and the world's largest tiger reserve.

72 Dolphins Left

There are only 72 freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins left in Myanmar, according to a 2004 census. Similarly small populations also occur in Cambodia and Bangladesh.

Threats to the dolphins in Myanmar include accidental killings by fishers and increased levels of pollution.

Environmental protection of the dolphins has improved with the establishment of protected river areas, said Brian Smith, a WCS expert on the dolphins who is based in Phuket, Thailand.

The country's critically endangered population of river dolphins was unaffected by the cyclone, because most of the animals live far north of the flooded area, he said.

However, there is a population of so-called estuarine Irrawaddy dolphins that inhabits the open waters of the now completely flooded delta.

In the past they have occasionally been seen swimming farther inland, in the waterways of the mangrove forest.

"These animals may have been affected by the storm surge, becoming stranded in low-lying areas, but the majority of the population is likely to inhabit open waters and were probably unaffected by the cyclone," Smith said.

Rare Sandpipers

The state of much of the delta remains unknown, because scientists have conducted little work there.

Probably harder hit than Irrawaddy dolphins was the small population of saltwater crocodiles and possibly nesting olive ridley sea turtles, Smith said.

Earlier this year, sightings of 84 spoon-billed sandpipers were reported at two coastal wetland sites in Myanmar.

The sandpipers are extremely rare, with populations having plummeted in the last few years to only 200 to 300 pairs.

The birds breed in Siberia, but scientists had not known where the sandpipers spent their winters.

"It looks like this area [in Myanmar] could be their most important winter habitat … but we're not sure what the impact [of the cyclone] will be on the population," said Poole, the WCS Asia director.

Biologists, he added, will have little baseline data on wildlife populations in the delta to determine what the true impact of the cyclone has been.

"We simply don't know what was there before," he said.

Tigers in Peril?

Conservationists warn that the long-term environmental effects of the cyclone could be dire and spread throughout the country.

"My concern would be similar to what we saw in Aceh, Indonesia, after the [2004] tsunami," Poole said.

"People are going to need food, need to rebuild houses, a lot of the rice crops are going to be lost. What impact is that going to have on the environment in the long term."

Rabinowitz, the Panthera president, thinks even the Hukaung Tiger Reserve in the far north of the country, in Kachin State, will eventually feel the effects of the disaster.

"For a country that has long been on the edge, with its forests and wildlife only now starting to get adequate protection in some places, this cyclone was a catastrophe at all levels," he said.

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