17 July 2020 - The Irrawaddy - Myanmar's approval of the gravely endangered Irrawaddy dolphin for captive commercial breeding has prompted condemnation from wildlife conservationists.

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment Conservation's Forestry Department ordered last month that 90 protected species, including the tiger, red panda, clouded leopard, pangolin and snub-nosed monkey, be made available for captive commercial breeding.

The Forestry Department said the endangered species can be commercialized through being displayed at zoos, hotels and for ecotourism in compliance with the 1994 Conservation of Biodiversity and Protected Areas Law.

The order allows the dolphins to be kept and bred in zoos.

It also allows species like the sambhur and barking deer, crocodiles and silver pheasant to be bred for meat and traditional medicine. Conservation campaigners say the wildlife trade will increase as a result.

The conservation and protected areas law says it aims to conserve endangered wildlife, natural habitat and ecosystems. It has, however, drawn criticism from conservation activists.

"The captive breeding of the Irrawaddy dolphin would not be easy as with other species, due to the breeding opportunities in Myanmar, their nature and habitation," said U Kyaw Hla Thein, the project coordinator of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)'s Irrawaddy dolphin conservation team.

Myanmar has a population of 79 Irrawaddy dolphins, the WCS reported in February. However, between March and early July, at least four dolphins, including a calf, died due to electro-fishing, the major threat to the species.

They are named after the river where they live. 

The dolphins are known for their unique nature and "cooperative fishing" with residents where the dolphins gathered fish and signal where nets should be cast.

The WCS welcomed the proposals for ecotourism, based on community-based dolphin watch tour packages. It said the move could promote education in the community and understanding of cooperative fishing, which is seen as unique to Myanmar.

"Putting dolphins in a small zoo pond is not a good idea. We have breeding projects for the star tortoise. The nature of the tortoise allows captive breeding and we can send them back to the wild. But dolphins are not the same," U Kyaw Hla Thein added. "The dolphins should be allowed to survive in the wild."

The group also criticized plans for captive commercial breeding because of the inability of the authorities to enforce the law and control the wildlife trade.

U Win Myo Thu, the director of EcoDev (Economically Progressive Ecosystem Development), said: "Captive breeding could increase populations, allow species to be researched and boost education. However, if the government does not set concrete regulations, we worry the plan will encourage wildlife trading."

Without restrictions on trading wild animals and their body parts, campaigners said demand for wild meat and body parts for traditional medicine might increase. 

"We are worried the private sector might misuse the orders and develop private zoos and hotels, breed wildlife and illegally trade wildlife because there are many legal loopholes and weaknesses," U Win Myo Thu added.

Activists said the plans will not encourage the conservation of endangered species.

U Thaw Phyo Shwe, the field coordinator of the Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association (Banca), said: "We do not encourage this plan."

He said the government plans may limit the numbers of wild animals that can be seized.

"But this will impact the environment and the habitat of the animals and mislead conservation efforts," he said.

A WWF and Flora and Fauna International joint statement expressed concern for the commercial breeding of 90 species, some of which are globally endangered.

The statement said experience elsewhere in Asean showed commercial breeding of wildlife was extremely difficult to regulate and rarely boosted conservation efforts. 

"Some commercial trading has been shown to increase the illegal trade in wildlife, particularly in high value and critically endangered species, by encouraging a parallel market and boosting overall demand for wild animal products. Commercial wildlife breeding and trade can also increase the risk of disease spillover from wildlife to humans, such as COVID-19," the statement said.

Conservationists in Myanmar told The Irrawaddy that the plan to commercialize breeding and show off wild animals needed to be reviewed, calling for the removal of endangered species like the Irrawaddy dolphin, tigers, red panda and Gurney's pitta, a species of hornbills, and to look for an alternate way to protect them.

"Wildlife should be in the wild. Putting them in a zoo is not the solution," said U Thaw Phyo Shwe of Banca.