Pyu Lake residents seek to protect their natural treasure

Photo A man fish on the lake by sitting on a tyre. Phyo Wai Kyaw/The Myanmar Times

​11 Dec 18 - Source: Myanmar Times - U Kan Oo was roused from his sleep in the early morning of December by what at first sounded like a loud cries coming from his roof.

But a few seconds after he gathered his bearings, he realised that it was that season of the year again when birds escaping the harsh winter from other regions of the world flock to Pyu Lake Village in Mandalay Region, where the cold is much gentler and food is abundant.

U Kan Oo felt the cool familiar December breezes slipping through the bamboo slats of his hut.

While city dwellers who live among dense built-up areas may have never felt that experience, for U Kan Oo and residents of Pyu Lake village in Tada-U Township Mandalay Region such bird calls are a regular occurrence that announces the onset of the winter season.

Pyu Lake is one of the few places in the country where the cries of birds are ubiquitous, as if they are celebrating for finally reaching a temporary refuge from the cruel winter of their original sanctuaries.

Upon hearing such cries, villagers usually go to the lake and watch with the arrival of their annual visitors.

Migratory birds fly thousands of miles across the globe to reach Pyu Lake, one of the many lakes and ponds in Myanmar where migratory birds find sanctuary from the harsh winters in other parts of the world. Experts say Taung Thaman Lake, Paleik Lake and Pyu Lake possess unique ecosystems which help these birds thrive during their short stay in the areas.

"Near Mandalay, there are many lakes including Thu Nge Taw, Taung Thaman, Paleik and Pyu. But, under current circumstances, Pyu Lake is in the best shape. The area remains pristine and a quick visual scan of the area shows no signs of degradation. It can be said birds in Paleik Lake are suffering the worst of ecological damage," said U Zaw Maung Thein, a bird enthusiast from Mandalay.

Located in Singaing Township, Paleik Lake has an area of 323 hectares during the monsoon season, but in the summer, it shrinks to 40.47 hectares. It is the lake with the largest number of migratory birds in the region.

A few years ago, commercial fish breeders began mushrooming around the lake.

By creating breeding ponds in Paleik Lake, fishes are bred commercially and because of this, the natural areas for winter birds have decreased.

Bird enthusiasts are very unhappy about Paleik Lake, which has been stripped of its natural beauty because of commercialisation and the number of migratory birds visiting the area is fast declining. Sun Ye Lake and Taung Thaman Lake can't fully provide an equivalent environment for birds as there are large communities in the area and commercial boats traverse the lakes as people move from one community to the other.

And the only area left for migratory birds is the Pyu Lake.

"According to our ancestors, Pyu Lake is believed to have existed since the reign of King Anawrahta so it is believed to be thousands of years old. There is no commercial fish breeding in this lake. Fishing commercially also isn't allowed. No boats are allowed to traverse the lake," said U Kan Oo.

"In 2004, a businessperson operated a fish breeding farm in the lake but for whatever reason, he faced many troubles as soon as he started his business. About 700,000 fingerlings were released in the farm but it couldn't turn a profit from the operation. Eventually, the farm stopped operating after losing about K10 million (US$ 6500)," he said.

Village residents bathe and wash at the Pyu Lake’s waterfront. Phyo Wai Kyaw/The Myanmar Times

 U Kan Oo said that in the 1960s, when he was still a young boy, there were a number of motorised boats traversing the lake, but they didn't last long either and were damaged quickly.

He said most villagers believe that Pyu Lake is protected by spirits and it is only a sanctuary for fish, birds and other animals. Villagers can engage in fishing but only for sustenance and not for commercial purposes. Whatever the reasons, this has helped make the lake a haven for migratory birds.

"Now we are planning to form the Shwe Kan Thar Yar Environmental Conservation Association with local residents. We'll work to protect a rare bird species called Baer's Pochard seen in this lake. The bird is believed to be near extinction. We would be more effective in protecting the lake as a group rather than individually," said U Kan Oo.

U Kan Oo said they want to ensure that the 263 hectares of Pyu Lake remains free from pollution, especially chemical pollution such as soaps and detergents used in bathing and washing clothes. And they would specifically rid the lake of any plastic materials.

Currently, the Tada-U city's Irrigation and Water Utilisation Management Department has erected sign-boards near the lake that say fishing in the lake and grazing cattle on the lake's banks is not allowed. Those who violate the rules by bringing cattle to the lake's bank, trespassing to live on the banks, cultivating crops and breeding animals are considered to have broken the country's irrigation laws and will be punished accordingly.

"Pyu Lake used to be a rainwater lake before it was expanded into a dam that gets it water from Kinda Dam in 1980s. We are very lucky to have this lake. It provides water to more than 1537 hectares of farms. Birds fly from thousands of mile away as this lake is a nice place and its water is in good condition. Chemicals should not be used. I don't want the birds to die," said U Kan Oo.

He said that sometimes people in the area caution hunters not to shoot birds in the lake, even though they are not authoritised forest rangers. The villagers watch the lake through binoculars to make sure hunters do not shoot birds.

U Zay Maung Thein said he and other fellow bird watchers as well as the villagers are very vigilant as illegal wildlife traders have extensive networks and can just give orders and hunters try their luck for the money.

"We are very careful about posting pictures of rare birds on social media. Sometimes, we don't include locations in the post to prevent them from being hunted as the illegal bird market is really huge," he said.

Currently, the near extinct Baer's Pochard,whose numbers are thought to be only about 700 around the world, can be seen in Pyu Lake, according to Daw Thiri Daywi Aung, Myanmar programme manager of conservation group Biodiversity And Nature Conservation Association (BANCA). She said the lake is a good place for researchers from universities, bird experts and hobbyists.

"On the advice of bird watchers, a ground survey was carried out at Pyu Lake in 2016 and 12 Baer's Pochards were found. Among 25 lakes in the country, only Pyu Lake has them. We also found them in 2017," she said. "People cannot catch fish using the electro-shock technique or boats here and so, it is really safe for bird species as well."

U Kan Oo feels proud that many people, including foreigners, have begun to take notice of their village treasure, but at the same time underscores the urgent need to ensure that it will not be abused or misused.

"Only the residents from Tada-U used to know about the lake. Even in Mandalay Region, people do not know about it. Nowadays, thanks to the bird experts, not only the people across Myanmar but also people from all over world are beginning to take interest in it. It is indeed the lake that we should take pride in while conserving it," he said.

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