Off a remote, glimmering beach backed by a lush tropical forest, Julia Tedesco skims the crystalline waters with mask and fins, looking for coral and fish life.
“There is almost nothing left down there,” the environmental project manager says, wading toward a sign planted on the shore reading “Lampi National Park.”
About 50m behind it, secreted among the tangled growth, lies the trunk of an illegally felled tree. Nearby, a trap has been set to snare mouse deer. And just across the island, within park boundaries, the beach and sea are strewn with plastic, bottles and other human waste from villagers.
The perilous state of Lampi, Myanmar’s only marine park, is not unique. Though the country’s 43 protected areas are among Asia’s greatest bastions of biodiversity, encompassing snow-capped Himalayan peaks, dense jungles and mangrove swamps, they are to a large degree protected in name alone. Park land has been logged, poached, dammed and converted to plantations as Myanmar revs up its economic engines and opens up to foreign investment after decades of isolation.
Of the protected areas, only half have even partial biodiversity surveys and management plans. At least 17 are described as “paper parks” — officially gazetted, but basically uncared for — in a comprehensive survey funded by the EU.
So rangers rarely see a tiger in the 21,891km2 Hukaung Valley Tiger Reserve. It is the world’s largest protected area for the big cats, but has been overrun by poachers supplying animal parts for traditional medicines in nearby China.
Myanmar’s first nature reserve, the Pidaung Wildlife Sanctuary set up in 1918, has been “totally poached out and should be degazetted,” says Tony Lynam, a field biologist for the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society.
Inaugurated in 1996, Lampi fit squarely into the paper-park category until possibly last year, when six rangers from the Burmese Department of Forestry were finally assigned to protect this 204km2 marine gem. It had been, and still largely remains, a do-as-you-please place.
Local residents and staffers with the Italian chapter of the Instituto Oikos, the group Tedesco works for, say dynamite fishing persists even within earshot of the ranger station.
They say Thai and Burmese trawlers encroach into no-fishing areas, and that natural forest on one park island, Bocho, is being converted to rubber, encouraged by government policy.
Without any management plan in place, four settlements in the park and a fifth within a proposed buffer zone have grown dramatically and now total about 3,000 people, many of them Burmese migrants from the mainland. Blast fishing has become so intense that the Myanmar navy sent four vessels to the area in January in an attempt to curb it.
Despite the ongoing depredations, the park retains an incredible variety of natural life, according to a report by Oikos and the Burmese non-government group BANCA.
Its evergreen forests harbor 195 plant species, including trees soaring as high as 30m and many of the park’s 228 bird species. Sea life ranges from dugongs — large mammals similar to manatees — to 73 different kinds of seaweed.
Nineteen mammal species, seven of them globally threatened, are at home here, including macaques seen on rocky headlands hunting for some of the 42 crab species. There is even a wild elephant, lone survivor from a herd earlier transported from the mainland.