Living dangerously and loving it!

A wildlife and forest official from Myanmar recounts her journey so far into the dense foliage and waterways of her country while fighting for conservation.

Living Dangerously

It was a dark, cloudy and sultry day on June 16th, 2018 at the water catchment area of Chindwin River, Hukaung Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, Myanmar. I was restless and had this strange feeling that something was amiss. As it happened, my forest camp was located in a flood-prone area and during the peak of monsoons in August until October, we witnessed the worst flooding in the vicinity of the camp area.

So on that fateful night, it was unusually humid and I decided to go up to the well near my camp to fetch some water for a quick shower. A dry log that supported several beautiful orchids attracted my attention. As I leaned towards the tree for a closer look, a hissing sound from a nearby bush made me freeze in my steps. Before I could react, I was almost faced to face with what seemed like a very angry black Monocled Cobra-Najakaouthia!. As is the common behavior for this species of snake, it stood tall almost my size with a fully inflated hood and I realized it was ready to fight me and strike me on my face. While I backed a few steps, my first thought was to run back, which I did.  But alas! It followed me and I could do nothing but desperately shout for my friend Hninhtay who was also on duty with me at the forest camp. Luckily with all the ruckus and shouting, the snake decided to move away and it slithered quietly into the night in the same manner as it had come. I thanked my lucky stars for the narrow escape and made a promise to myself, that I must respect the forest and its denizens and let them have the first right to it!

Living in the forest has many rewards and many such accidental moments when one realizes that the jungle truly belongs to its natural denizens. While one must be careful, incidents such as these made me wonder, what more lessons does the jungle have to offer. Maybe on a hunt or some other incident or two, that I had intruded in its territory. But the bottom line once again was a life lesson to respect nature and tread carefully.

Chindwin river; the largest tributary of the Ayeyarwady River

Chindwin river; the largest tributary of the Ayeyarwady River

Loving it – the younger days

I have always been in love with the forests, as early as I can recall. When I was ten years old, during the summer holidays, my siblings and I would follow my father for a hunt inside the forests. I learnt how to trap small hares, rodents and birds. In those days, wildlife was aplenty and everyone in the village used to hunt for small animals and birds for enjoyment and also for food. Conservation awareness in the global context was unheard of.  Like every other village person who had grown up amidst forests, my father had his own locally-made traps made of a forked-bamboo stick, net, silks ropes and two small woody bells to catch small mammals. Now that we advocate no hunting, the indigenous knowledge can still be used, perhaps for the betterment of wildlife conservation activities such as the trapping method can be used to capture animals for treatment or scientific research without causing much pain or injury.

I also learnt from my father that all wild animals and plants have folk stories that are associated with for reverence and hence passed on through generations. He taught me that the Oriental Scops Owl (Otussunia)  is the guardian of the forest as it keeps calling through the night to chuck away bad omen. Similarly, it is from him that I learnt that the easiest way to find the Common butterfly lizard (Leiolepisguttata) was to shake an Emblica tree branch inside its burrow. The Butterfly lizard always has two entries to its burrow and the emblica branch made it miraculously run out of the minor burrow.

As a child, I accompanied my father once to the forest and it was the time when I had the first glimpse of the Golden Jackal (Canis aureus), feeding on some fallen ripe Ziziphus fruits. Its eyes were as bright as the morning sun and it looked at me with the stillness of the forest. That moment has remained etched in my memory and maybe it was that day that I decided that I wanted to be a wild-lifer and nothing else.

Bird survey teams in Hukaung Valley Wildlife Sanctuary

Bird survey teams in Hukaung Valley Wildlife Sanctuary

The plunge – Chattin Wildlife sanctuary

I was just out of high school when I joined the Chattin wildlife sanctuary as a Sub-forester on 20th April 1998. I was assigned to the ‘Bird monitoring team’ where I learnt to conduct bird surveys using line transects.  It is also here that I learnt to study the behavior of one of the most beautiful deer species found in Myanmar, the Eld’s deer or Thamin (Panoliaeldii thamin). Thamin is found in good number along with other 3 species of deer namely, muntjac (Muntiacus muntjac), hog deer (Cervus porcinus), and sambhar (Cervus unicolor) in the dry deciduous broadleaf forest dominated by Dipterocarpus tuberculatus. I was part of the first-ever long-term scientific study using radio-collaring techniques that was led by a team of scientists of Smithsonian Institute to study the behavior of the Thamin in the wild for about 4 years.

We found that the Thamin fed on dry forest shoot of thatch grass, and fruits and leaves of Ziziphus, Emblica, ficussemicordata, Terminalia chebula and Strychnosnuxvomica fruits. Mating took place in the summer and they were usually found in herds with One alpha male, several females and young. Interestingly during hot summer months, they also liked to wallow in swampy areas.

Photo from Chattin Wildlife Sanctuary

Photo from Chattin Wildlife Sanctuary


Photo from Indawgyi Wildlife Sanctuary

The polishing – Indawdyi Wildlife sanctuary My next posting was in the Indawgyi Wildlife sanctuary in 2000. This is one of the largest inland lakes in Southeast Asia and is located in Mohnyin region of Kachin State in  Myanmar. It has been recognized as an Important Bird area of global significance, as more than 10 species of globally endangered bird species can be found here. This includes the Greylag geese, Oriental darter and Purple swamphen that comes in as winter visitors during the month of January. Our bird surveys added more than 97 species of water-birds that included 70% migratory and 30% resident birds. The information was also used to take up wildlife conservation education programs in the vicinity.


The learning continues – Hukaung Wildlife Sanctuary

After I successfully completed the certificate course in wildlife from Wildlife Institute of India, I was transferred to Hukaung Valley Wildlife Sanctuary in Dec 2017. The Hukaung Valley Wildlife Sanctuary (HVWS) and its extension are located in northwest Myanmar and falls in both Sagaing Division and Kachin State and cover a total area of 17890km². HWVS and extension form a doughnut-like shape whose unprotected centre covers the floodplain of the Chindwin river; the largest tributary of the Ayeyarwady River.

The floodplain is inhabited by about 50,000 people. Establish in 2001, HVWS covers 6371 km². In 2004, the extension was established, adding 11519km².  Hereafter, the two sites are referred to as the HVWS. To the east and northeast, it is contiguous with Bumhpabum wildlife Sanctuary and HponkanRazi wildlife Sanctuary. To the north, it abuts Namdapha National Park (NP), which was put on India`s Tentative List of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in March 2006. Forest areas within HVWS are primarily evergreen. At higher elevations, mixed deciduous forest, evergreen hill forest are present. Altogether, it forms one of the largest tiger conservation landscape in the world. Globally threatened wildlife includes the Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus), Tiger (Panthera tigris) and White-bellied Heron (Ardea insignis).

White-bellied Heron (Ardea insignis), also known as the imperial heron or great White-bellied Heron, is a species of large heron found in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas in India, northeastern Bangladesh, Myanmar and Bhutan with stray records from Nepal. The heron is mostly solitary and is found on undisturbed riverside or wetland habitats. The global population has declined and the species is threatened by disturbance and habitat degradation. The species is currently listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN.

White-bellied Heron monitoring survey was done in collaboration with Wildlife Conservation Society from 2009 to 2011. We extensively monitored the numerous water bodies in the sanctuary such as Tanai stream, Tawan stream, Taron stream, Sanit stream, Saset stream, BabranBabran stream, Mawnin stream, Nampharaw stream, Shinbwen Yan stream , Nanyum stream by boat.

While monitoring these rare birds through boat surveys especially in the Tawan stream area, we found that that was not afraid of us and would easily fly in front of our boat. It confirmed that within the Sanctuary they were safe with limited human influence.

We also spotted some juveniles on the Taron stream which is the largest in the sanctuary. Overall we recorded more than 16 birds (including juveniles) in our four surveys conducted in the sanctuary. This excellent news gave us much happiness and hope!

We also got to record more than 6 birds of the endangered white- winded wood Duck- Cairinascutulata which indicated the presence of good quality riverine habitat for these birds.

And miles to go before I Sleep

While it has been a roller coaster adventure so far, it has been super exciting as I have known many threats from wild animals to militant groups to mining mafias. The forest habitat is constantly under threat from illegal activities including gold, amber and jade mining, poppy plantation and non-forestry plantation. Increase in human population has also resulted in shorter jhum cycles and increased livestock grazing pressure on forest lands.

But I am hopeful, with people’s awareness and government support, things will change and change for the better. Information and awareness is the key and I am geared for the same. With every passing day, my will to strive harder and save the forest denizens becomes stronger. I know, the Almighty is with me, as she was on that fateful night on June 12th as well as everytime I have needed her. With her support, I will continue to do my duty and be glad that I have done it well.


The views expressed here are personal.


Read also: Junglimericks: In the Crazy Wilds of India 

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About the Author /

Daw KhinKhin Aei is a Forester with more than 20 years of work experience with the Myanmar Forest Department, Nature and Wildlife Conservation Division. She began her career as a sub-forester, fresh out of high school to work with the bird and Thamin deer monitoring teams at Chattin Wildlife Sanctuary. She was subsequently posted in Indawgyi Wildlife Sanctuary and Hukaung Wildlife sanctuary where she further honed her skills to ascertain the population status of the critically endangered White Bellied Heron. She recently completed her Certificate Course in wildlife management from Wildlife Institute of India, and has pledged both her professional and personal her life to wildlife conservation in her country.

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