Sneezing in the rain

Ngwe Lwin - Myanmar

It may be more common these days to hear doom and gloom stories of biodiversity loss and environmental degradation, but exciting discoveries of new species do happen and give heart to conservationists the world over.

Ngwe Lwin demonstrating the use of GPS software

While discoveries of new invertebrate or fish species may be relatively frequent, it’s not often that a new species of primate is discovered.

Ngwe Lwin, a vigilant young Burmese conservationist, was lucky enough to come across a new species of snub-nosed monkey in the Himalayan Mountains of Myanmar whilst taking part in primate surveys in early 2010. Hunters reported seeing a monkey that had prominent lips and wide, upturned nostrils—features unlike those of any snub-nosed species previously described. Because of its upturned nose, this new Mae Hka snub-nosed monkey (Rhinopithecus strykeri), has the endearing trait of sneezing when it rains!

Local knowledge

Interviewing hunters, Ngwe believes that the species is limited to forests of the Maw River area, approximately 270 km2, with an estimated population of 260-330 individuals, low enough to be classified as Critically Endangered by IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species.

The surveys were being carried out by local NGO the Myanmar Biodiversity and Conservation Association (BANCA), the in-country partner of IUCN Member Fauna & Flora International (FFI) and an international team of primatologists from FFI and the People, Resources and Conservation Foundation.

Sadly, this latest addition to the snub-nosed monkey family is already threatened. Logging roads built by Chinese companies intersect the area and a timber company is building two logging roads close to the species’ habitat.

Under threat

The Mae Hka watershed is also subject to one of Asia’s largest hydropower development schemes implemented by the China Power Investment Corporation (CPI). While the snub-nosed monkey range is not directly affected by flooding, the construction of roads will allow all-year access to the mountains.

Early this year, Ngwe documented increased hunting because of the influx of Chinese construction workers and demand for wildlife products. He is now approaching the authorities in Myanmar and China to improve the enforcement of national wildlife protection laws and CITES—the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

Nevertheless, there is a potential win-win solution for conservation. Sedimentation caused by logging would reduce the lifespan of the dams and reduce economic revenues from hydroelectric power generation.

According to Ngwe, the challenge is to convince the Chinese government to phase out logging, and collaborate with CPI to protect the watershed and create a new protected area through trans-boundary collaboration between China and Myanmar.

Positive moves

Ngwe has reported the first success in establishing voluntary hunting restrictions. “After intensive conservation awareness work and meetings, hunters in eight villages agreed to stop shooting the snub-nosed monkey. Myanmar’s people need to increase their knowledge of the environment and participate in conservation activities,” he says.

Ngwe has wanted to work in conservation since leaving University and has decided to dedicate his life to developing a community-managed conservation area and to phasing out logging.

“I did not have the chance to do anything when I left university because at that time only a few people and organizations were doing nature conservation in Myanmar and it was difficult to get involved in activities,” says Ngwe.

After receiving bird watching training and becoming a guide, Ngwe Lwin was recognised as an emerging conservationist and began work in the field of primate conservation. He has much work to do but his dreams are already becoming a reality.

Ngwe Lwin can be contacted at [email protected]

Work area: 
North America
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