Discovering wildlife in Wild Burma

Dr Ross Piper was part of the BBC team behind Wild Burma. He talks about what they found. And what the future holds in a country where wildlife conservation is still in its infancy

7 mins

For the first time in over 50 years, a team of wildlife filmmakers from the BBC’s Natural History Unit and scientists from the Smithsonian Institution have been granted access to venture deep into Burma’s impenetrable jungles. The result is a three-part series called Wild Burma.

On a mission to scour the forests and create a diverse species list to present to the country’s policy makers, they hope to help get these forests protected. One of those involved was Dr Ross Piper, and he speaks to Peter Moore about the challenges he faced. And what the future holds for the wildlife in a country just emerging out of decades of isolation.

Burma is back on the radar after being isolated for so long. Were you aware of the kind of wildlife that was there? Were there any surprises?

Before it got closed off, and back when it was colony, the British had done a lot of research there. In terms of the forest, a lot of it is typically South-East Asian lowland forest. So we expected to find the same sort of things you’d find in other parts of South-East Asia. 

Having said that, because the country has been closed for so long, we didn’t really have much of an idea of what state the forest would be in. Everyone was talking about it being pristine forest as far as the eye can see. And if you have a look at a map that’s what it looks like. But the reality was a bit different.

What areas were you focusing on?

We were in the west, in the Rakhine Yoma mountains, on two sites there, Gwa and the Salu river. Gwa was easy to get to, but the Salu river site was pretty remote. The only way to get there was walking.  But you know, we were limited as to where we could go. There were lots of places we couldn’t go. And even now, especially in the far north. We got as far as Tomanthi, which is not too far from the Indian border. But further north is where the really interesting stuff is, from a wildlife perspective, all that tract of land is essentially unexplored.

I imagine over on the east side, bordering with Thailand, you get a lot of logging.

Yeah, there has been a lot. In the far south, on the peninsula, the Karen State, there’s rainforest there and they still have a lot of forest left. The Karen people are animists, so they’re really keen on keeping their forest, conserving what they have left. In other parts of Burma, the people are looking for a fast buck, really. It’s a bit disheartening. But I don’t know what’s going to happen long term.

So what are the threats to the wildlife there?

Burma is sandwiched between China and India, and China is just hoovering stuff up, regardless where it is. So all the animals that we’ve seen on camera traps or seen evidence of in the forest, you can see in all of the markets on the borders. In the second episode they went to a market on the Chinese border and it was just a free for all, really.

So that was for medical purposes or for food?

For food, for Chinese medicine. And also for the wildlife trade. There were lots of animals in cages. Animals like slender loris and various creatures like that, that are going to be sold on as pets.

What’s thriving there and what’s not?

We came across lots of animals. But there has been so much poaching that everything is terrified of humans. You never saw anything with your own eyes really. The camera traps caught loads of stuff. But with your own eyes, you’d only see limited evidence of animals. So you know they’re all there.

There was a lot of canopy work as well.

Yeah, I did some stuff with insects, which is my area of expertise. Unfortunately, it was the dry season. Obviously, for getting in there, we couldn’t visit during the wet, with the amount of people we had. So we had to go in the dry season, so insect numbers were done. There was still the variety, but the best things I saw were in the north, getting up closer to the Himalayas. Again, I’d like to go back there because you could spend years there. But it’s very important to go back there and do more survey. The more information you have you can build a better case for trying to protect these places.

What is the government’s attitude to wildlife and wildlife preservation?

We didn’t really get the sense of that. The problem is that Burma is so poor. The average wage is $2 a day. So all things we saw evidence of, whether it was poaching or logging, it was basically people trying to survive. It’s difficult. It’s all well and good us saying ‘You can’t do this, you can’t cut all the forest down’ but the thing is, they’re just trying to feed themselves and their family. So what do you do? You’ve got to try and give them viable alternatives.

So you got the feeling that it was low-scale poaching, not run by criminal groups?

Yeah, it was subsistence poaching. But as it opens up, more and more people are going to be going in there and trying to catch what they can. In the third episode, when we were in Tomanthi, when we were going after tigers. If the locals catch a tiger, it’s essentially like a lottery win. It’s an enormous amount of cash. So that’s the incentive there. And that’s going to continue happening until you can get rid of that demand. Until you get rid of that demand you’re just banging your head against a brick wall.

What are those alternatives?

Basically convincing the locals that they can make more money out of these forests by leaving them standing, by attracting people to come and look at the plants and animals, than they would by chopping them down. The west needs to stand up and offer some kind of financial aid too. It’s all well and good wringing our hands, but unless you're willing to put those hands in your pocket, it's not going to change.

How viable is it for someone to go and see wildlife? There doesn’t seem to be much infrastructure or tours in place.

There are organisations out there. There’s one called BANCA and they do lots tours out there. But I think they are just limited as to where they can go. There are certain tourist routes where foreigners can go, but there are other areas where you’re not allowed to go at all.

And that’s where the wildlife is?

I think so. If you’re interested in birds, you can go pretty much anywhere in Burma and you’ll see lots of good stuff. But it depends what you’re interested in. I’d love to go back to the far north and see what’s up there.

With regards to this series, there were three parts. The first was focusing on Asiatic elephants, the second one there are quite a few animals featured.

The second one is more of a general survey of the animals that we found, but the main story was on sun bears. Just from the results of the camera traps, there seems to be a lot of sun bears. There weren’t too many Asiatic black bears. They’ve been poached really heavily. Their paws are really valuable and so are their gall bladders.

And the third one you go looking for the tigers?

Yeah, in Tomanthi. You see lots of other things as well, but primarily it’s the tigers.

What was the overall aim of the series?

To raise awareness, that Burma is a place to go if you’re interested in wildlife. There are huge stretches of it that are unexplored by biologists that will hopefully be accessible when it starts to open up more. I found species that were new to science over there. So there’s tonnes of stuff.

For you as a zoologist, did it excite you?

Definitely! For me it was living the dream. Just to go out to a tropical rainforest, looking for animals – I’d be happier doing that for the rest of my life. It was awesome. I honestly don’t get bored of it. I’m like a big kid.

So Burma delivered for you?

Yeah, particularly Tomanthi. But I would like to go back to all the places at a better time of the year and explore more of the north. And the far south as well. Some of the islands are supposed to be good. On some of the islands the forests are still pristine.

If you missed the first episode of Wild Burma, you can watch it now on BBC iPlayer. Episode 2 will be shown on BBC 6 December at 9pm. For more information about Dr Ross Piper and his work, visit his website.

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