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RANGOON and KYAIKTO—Chaw Chaw, a four-year female leopard, paces endlessly up and down her cramped cage in a tourist resort in southwest Burma, nearby Mon State’s famous Golden Rock.
In the wild, the graceful cat can reach speeds of up to 50 mph and bring down game much larger than herself. Now, she is trapped in a steel-barred, eight-by-eight meter enclosure and reduced to neurotic pacing in this “zoological garden and organic orchard” in Kyaikto Township.
Near the Golden Rock, groups of vendors offer tourists an array of traditional medicine products supposedly made from body parts of endangered and protected animals. For US $20 a woman offers The Irrawaddy tiger teeth, of which she claims to have a whole jar.
The two scenes seem to indicate two major problems that animal life in Burma faces: poor animal welfare due to under-funded zoo keeping facilities that date back to British colonial times, and a lively trade in endangered animals that drives rampant poaching across the country.
Burma has a rich wildlife with unique species and large forest habitats that would be the envy of many countries in the region, creating significant potential for eco-tourism. It is home to a diverse range of animals including tiger, Asian elephant, clouded leopard, Asian bear, red panda, estuarine crocodiles and several species of turtle. Of the roughly 1,300 species found in Burma, 31 mammals are listed as endangered along with 44 bird species and 20 reptiles.
To protect its animal wildlife and biodiversity, Burma has established more than a dozen national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, and it has three zoos and a collection of smaller complexes housing animals as tourist attractions.
However, poaching and deforestation through illegal logging and encroaching farmlands threatens what remains of many species and their natural habitat. In addition, sensitivities over control and authority in the many diverse ethnic areas further hinder effective policing and management of conservation areas.
Across Southeast Asia a profitable black market trade in endangered species is booming, driven for the most part by Chinese demand for traditional medicines. In Burma, the trade is also fuelling rampant wildlife poaching.
“This market drives demand and encourages local farmers to engage in lucrative poaching in nearby protected areas for extra income,” said Dr. Tun Myint, manager of the Veterinary and Research section of Rangoon Zoological Garden and its only resident vet.
Set on nearly 70 acres of inner city land, Rangoon Zoological Garden was established in 1906 following a classic British design and landscaping. Only a short walk from downtown Rangoon District, it presents an oasis of tranquility in the bustling city for a modest entrance fee. But in terms of animal welfare and housing it falls far short of international standards, as little funds have been put into modernizing facilities in past decades.
Tun Myint acknowledges the old zoo’s shortcomings. “We remain quite isolated, we receive support and interact with Burma’s other two zoos [in Mandalay and Naypyidaw] … and also receive some assistance in terms of animal exchange and technical advice from the Cologne Zoo in Germany, but we would welcome more support and expertise from outside,” he said.
According to Tun Myint, the issue of wildlife protection and animal welfare has yet to register as a priority issue in the minds of government officials and politicians. “The Parliament has been very slow in its decision-making process concerning these kinds of issues and the wildlife of Burma urgently needs at least one strong advocate amongst the politicians,” he said.
While the government has been slow to allocate funds to the issue, the private sector has been taking steps to invest in—and profit from—Burma’s old zoos. The Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry handed Rangoon Zoological Garden, Mandalay’s Yadanarpon Zoo and Naypyidaw’s Safari Garden and Planetarium over to the Htoo Foundation in April 2011, after it pledged to spend about $14.5 million on renovations.
The Htoo Foundation is owned by one of the country’s wealthiest businessmen, Tay Za, who is known to be a business crony of senior Burmese generals.
Despite such developments, Tun Myint at times feels as if he is the only who recognizes that Burma is losing the battle to save its unique wildlife population. “Some days, even I myself feel like an endangered species in this country,” he said.