Tourism: a threat or an opportunity? A view from Myanmar’s iconic Ayeyarwady River

Biodiversity concerns are not often considered in tourism – unless an area is considered environmentally sensitive or is a designated site of natural importance, or if major infrastructure is planned. But in general, tourism can have major impacts on nature, and even the sudden influx of tourists in places that were otherwise sparsely visited will have repercussions on animals and plants and their environment.

Eastern spot-billed ducks

The Harrison Institute, an NGO that works in Myanmar, has undertaken to study such impacts. Through a grant from the Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund (CEPF) and IUCN, the NGO worked on assessing the possible effects of a sudden and largely unplanned increase in tourism on the biodiversity and rural, riverine culture of one particular area of Myanmar, the Upper Ayeyarwady (Irrawady) River Corridor.

In the last three years, visitor numbers to Myanmar have tripled following recent political changes. International tourists are arriving in ever increasing numbers from Europe, USA, Australia and especially Asia, particularly Thailand, India and China. From a baseline of less than a million tourists in 2012, it is expected that more than seven million will visit annually by 2020.

“Our CEPF project was put together as a response to this dramatic increase in tourism,” said Dr Paul Bates, Director of the Harrison Institute. “We put together a team, which comprises staff members from two in-country civil society organisations, Myanmar Bird and Nature Society and Grow Back for Posterity, staff and students from the Universities of Mandalay and Banmaw (also called ‘Bhamo’), and ourselves from the Harrison Institute.”

“All of us have considerable experience of studying Myanmar’s wildlife. We all know that if managed sensitively, increased tourism could bring many benefits to the country, especially economically. Conversely, we are aware that if ill-considered projects are allowed to proliferate, it could have hugely detrimental impacts on the environment,” he added.

The Ayeyarwady is Myanmar’s largest and most important river. Aside from being the main commercial waterway, it is home to rich, and sometimes rare, biodiversity. The project initiated by the Harrison Institute focused on a 570 kilometre stretch of river that runs from Banmaw in Kachin State south to Bagan in central Myanmar. The designated study area includes seven Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs, or places of international importance for the conservation of biodiversity) and four Important Bird Areas (IBAs, or sites known for their global significance in bird conservation). This portion of the river is also home to the threatened Irrawaddy river dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) whose population in the river has been estimated to be around 58 to 72 individuals in 2007.

One of the initial tasks was to assess the status of the natural and cultural heritage within the project area. This involved an extensive desk-based study of the existing literature and a series of field surveys in different parts of the river corridor. For the latter, the team travelled mostly by boat, aboard the M.S. Hintha which served as the research vessel. They recorded not only the wildlife but also the threats these face. The focus was on birds and mammals.

The results of the research were encouraging. Set within a regional context where there has been massive over-exploitation of the environment in many neighbouring countries, the Upper Ayeyarwady River Corridor appears to be in relatively good condition.

In February, 2015, the river-based survey travelled from Mandalay to Banmaw. River dolphins were recorded at five separate sites, all within existing KBAs. Meanwhile, fifty-six bird species were recorded and populations – especially of Anatidae (ducks and geese), Ardeidae (herons and egrets), Phalacrocoracidae (cormorants), Hirundunidae (swallows and martins) and some Glareolidae (especially small pratincoles) – were particularly abundant, specifically in the KBAs which hosted much of the most suitable habitat. Larger migratory species such as osprey, long-legged buzzard, Pallas’s gull, common crane, bar-headed goose, oriental darter, black stork and Asian openbill were also observed.

Previous research in November 2014 had recorded 100 bird species in the woodlands and open habitats of Bagan, a historical and cultural site, which lies adjacent to the Ayeyarwady River. Of these 100 species, four are endemic to Myanmar: the white-throated babbler, Burmese bushlark, hooded treepie, and Jerdon’s minivet. Further north, on the west bank of the Ayeyarwdady, the study visit to Tawyagyi Wildlife Sanctuary (a KBA and the oldest protected area in Myanmar (founded by King Mindon in 1852), revealed that some 30+ globally endangered Eld’s deer (Rucervus eldii) still live in the area’s dry broad leaf forest. This habitat type is listed as being of "regionally outstanding biological distinctiveness."

Empirical evidence from the surveys shows that, at present, tourism is not a major threat to wildlife in the area. The possible exception is Bagan, where a rapid expansion of infrastructure and urbanisation could threaten habitats. Elsewhere, the study sees that tourism could play a positive role by highlighting the value of the existing natural and cultural heritage and focusing attention on the need for their conservation and preservation for the future.

The results of the study further suggest that the greatest existing threats appear to be (1) disturbance of potential bird nesting sites on sand-banks by humans, cattle and dogs; (2) the indiscriminate dumping of household waste (which is a particular problem in Kachin State); (3) gold extraction (although this was seen as relatively low scale within this particular sector of the river); and (4) the use of illegal fishing practices, such as gill nets and electric fishing (from the research this is thought to be a major problem but the team found it difficult to observe, as it mostly happens at night).

Based on the research, Harrison Institute believes that the Ayeyarwady River Corridor could serve as a significant refuge for biodiversity in a modernising Myanmar and that, with some additional active conservation measures such as those occurring on the Mekong River to promote the nesting of sand-bank bird species, it could be further improved with a relatively small financial investment.

As part of the project, and with additional funding from other sources, Harrison Institute is training a new generation of young ecotourism guides, skilled in bird identification and knowledgeable in conservation and the environment. The Institute believes that such guides can play a part in the development of sustainable tourism in Myanmar.

The NGO also conducted several workshops in Myanmar and an international conference in Mandalay in October 2014 entitled Tourism on the Upper Ayeyarwady: maximising the opportunities, minimising the risks. All participants from central government, local authorities, local communities, tourism businesses, as well as in-country NGOs and CSOs were positive about protecting the environment.

“Without a doubt, Myanmar stands at a crossroads,” concluded Dr Bates. “Future economic development could either lead to destruction or to a win-win scenario for man and nature. Now is the time to support, advise and encourage the people of Myanmar and to demonstrate the link between good environmental management and inclusive, equitable and sustainable development.”

The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) is a joint initiative of l’Agence Française de Développement, Conservation International, the European Union, the Global Environment Facility, the Government of Japan, the MacArthur Foundation and the World Bank. A fundamental goal is to ensure civil society is engaged in biodiversity conservation.

IUCN is leading the second phase (2013-2018) of CEPF's work in the Indo-Burma hotspot, working together with the Myanmar Environment Rehabilitation-conservation Network (MERN) and Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden (KFBG) to form the CEPF Regional Implementation Team (RIT).

About the NGO partners:
Harrison Institute is a UK-based charity which aims to facilitate and promote biodiversity conservation through research, capacity building, developing networks and promoting poverty alleviation. For this project, it worked with Myanmar Bird and Nature Society, an organization dedicated to the research and protection of birds and nature in Myanmar and Grow Back for Posterity, an NGO which collaborates with local communities, government, national and international CSOs, and other stakeholders in order to protect Myanmar's natural and cultural heritage using adaptive conservation strategies based on exact science.

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