More attention should be paid to practices of wildlife conservation that emerge from local beliefs and customs, which are often overshadowed by international agreements and government action plans.
By NICOLE TU-MAUNG and MATTHEW VENKER | FRONTIER
From the southern Myeik Archipelago to the northern Kachin hills, Myanmar’s natural ecosystems support species of flora and fauna found nowhere else in the world. Myanmar’s status as one of the most biologically diverse regions on the planet has made it a priority country for international conservation efforts; Myanmar has been designated as part of the Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot by Conservation International, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has identified over 207 vulnerable and endangered species within the country.
At present, Myanmar’s abundant wildlife and ecosystems are managed under the 2018 Conservation of Biodiversity and Protected Areas Law. This law regulates the management of local species and landscapes and enforces the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna, or CITES, which Myanmar signed onto in 1997.
Such top-down approaches to conservation certainly have their place, and they represent Myanmar’s formal commitment to protecting its biodiversity. However, less attention has been given to forms of wildlife conservation that emerge, not from international agreements or government action plans, but from local traditions and beliefs. A limited body of scholarship on Myanmar suggests that the preservation of diverse cultures and practices could have an important knock-on effect in supporting biological diversity.
For example, in Myaleik Taung, a mountain in Sintkaing Township just south of Mandalay, local beliefs have been essential to the continued survival of one critically endangered species, the Burmese Star Tortoise (Geochelone platynota). While this animal has been harvested near to extinction for food and traditional medicine in other parts of Myanmar, villagers at Myaleik Taung adhere to taboos against harming them.
There, the Star Tortoise is closely associated with the nats, spirits of an animist tradition that is practiced in close conjunction with Buddhism. Villagers believe that disturbing a tortoise could result in retribution from the nats that live in the nearby forest. This belief was first recorded in a 2003 study led by Dr Steven Platt of the Wildlife Conservation Society, which found the Star Tortoise population at Myaleik Taung to be relatively abundant.
Similarly, in southern Myanmar, local beliefs have afforded at least some protection to the Mangrove Terrapin (Batagur baska), another critically endangered reptile. In Tanintharyi Region, a 2008 study led by wildlife biologist Dr Kalyar Platt recorded strong, highly localised beliefs that these animals have spiritual powers, including the ability to transform into humans. Local people hesitate to harvest or disturb these animals, believing that they live under the protection of resident nats. Although Mangrove Terrapins have disappeared in most parts of their historical range in South and Southeast Asia, these beliefs provide hope for their continued survival in isolated parts of Myanmar.
Throughout the Ayeyarwady delta, the Sarus Crane (Antigone antigone) is esteemed by Buddhist monks and laypeople for the bird’s place in the life of the Gautama Buddha. According to Buddhist lore, an injured Sarus Crane fell into the lap of the young prince Siddhartha, who nursed the bird back to health. The International Crane Foundation has said there are only about 400 of these birds left in Myanmar. Most of them are in estuarine areas of Ayeyarwady Region.
The relationship between religion and wildlife protection has a long history in Myanmar, including at the level of state policy in the pre-colonial era. An early prototype of modern protected areas existed in the designation of bemetaw (“threat-free forests”), places where all living beings were protected from harm.
U Myint Aung, an ecologist and former warden of Chatthin Wildlife Sanctuary in Sagaing Region, has said that Burmese kings began designating bemetaw following the introduction of Buddhism in the 11th century, but the first recorded example was the Yadanarpon bemetaw under King Mindon in 1860. Twenty years later, King Thibaw, Burma’s last king, extended his father’s sanctuary by designating all of what remained of his kingdom in Upper Burma as a bemetaw – though historian Charles Keeton has suggested this move had less to do with environmentalism than with securing natural resources against colonial incursions.
Whatever Thibaw’s motives, or that of other kings, the protections for wildlife that they decreed lived on in British colonial policy. In 1936, a provision in the first dedicated law for conserving wildlife, the Wild Life Protection Act, forbade hunting within 200 yards of any inhabited Buddhist monastery or other religious edifice, including non-Buddhist ones.
This transformed the hundreds of monasteries in the country into de facto bemetaws. British administrators sometimes capitalised on this added function by appointing monastic leaders as park wardens in the sacred protected areas that surrounded their monasteries. In comparison to colonial game wardens, whose primary obligation was to protect timber yields, monks were said to have taken seriously their responsibility to preserve the life of the land and the animals in their care.
Legal flux, new opportunities
When the colonial statute was eventually replaced by the 1994 Protection of Wildlife and Conservation of Natural Areas Law, the provisions against hunting in the vicinity of sacred spaces went with it. Myanmar’s legal framework for conservation has since been updated twice, with the passing of the Environmental Conservation Law in 2012 and the Conservation of Biodiversity and Protected Areas Law in May 2018.
Significantly, the 2018 law allows for the designation of “community protected areas” that would be managed by local communities in partnership with the Forest Department. It also enables the establishment of buffer zones, where communities surrounding protected areas can use natural resources and even develop ecotourism initiatives.
While bylaws clarifying how these provisions would work in practice are still being worked out, the 2018 law could allow local beliefs and practices to be incorporated more into national conservation efforts. It is crucial that policies for managing the environment benefit both local communities and wildlife populations, since both are vulnerable in the face of climate change, intensifying resource extraction and declining habitat quality.
The natural environment is an intricate system of interactions between animals, people and the habitats they share; conserving it requires strategies that are just as complex. International conventions and national laws matter because they allow actions that threaten wildlife to be punished. But punitive approaches will fail in the absence of participation from local communities.
With this in mind, traditional beliefs and practices that protect wildlife could provide a useful meeting point between national and local interests. They are fertile ground for conservation strategies that adhere to, rather than undermine, local values.