05 Dec 2020 - Source: Myanmar Times - A quick Facebook search in Burmese for the words "bird shop" brings up a mix of responses, including pet shops and bird breeders selling all manner attractive, exotic and colourful birds.

Alongside these legal businesses its also possible to find groups and pages full of posts showing many endangered birds, including tethered falcons and eagles. In these groups some users post pictures of endangered birds – not to highlight their beauty or rareness, but rather as food. One post from a user in Chin State, for instance, shows a Guinea fowl in a pot, ready to be eaten by an elderly relative. Other posters joke about eating rarer species, such as the country's many migratory birds and birds of prey.

As migratory birds have started arriving in Myanmar, seeking out the temperate wetlands for nesting, the number of bird-related posts on Facebook has increased. Maung Maung Than's post has been a particularly prominent one over the past few weeks. His Facebook page shows a picture of him holding up an eastern imperial eagle (Aquila heliacal). Another image shows the bird sitting placidly on his living room floor. His photos aren't to show off his hunting or cooking skills, however, but rather to highlight the plight of Myanmar's many endangered migratory birds – which typically arrive on our shores between October and March.

Maung Maung Than is part of a group in Nattalin in Bago Division seeking to rescue endangered birds from poachers. As a reward for his efforts Maung Maung Than and his team received around K200,000, the proceeds of which he gave back to the farmers who handed him the birds. The birds Maung Maung and his team rescue will all be released back into the wild.

Ko Ngwe Lwin, country manager of Fauna & Flora International-Myanmar said that poaching has gotten worse during the COVID-19, as people seek new sources of income. "Though no one is allowed to travel during the lockdowns, bird hunters still go out and hunt birds. Some will catch birds to eat, but others will sell them," he said. Though it's hard to estimate the number of migratory birds killed in Myanmar, the number of amateur bird hunters has increased during the COVID-19 outbreak, he added.

Muang Maung Than's work was rewarded by the Department of Forestry, illustrating the government's acknowledgement of the problem. Whilst rewards like this are often offered to those who recover endangered birds, there are very few disincentives for hunters. "Law enforcement in this area is quite weak, making it difficult to stop completely. Officials of the forest department can't visit all of the regions, so it would help to have more public participation," Ko Ngwe Lin said.

About 10 species of migratory birds in Myanmar are listed as endangered species, said Daw Thiri Dawei Aung, managing director of BANCA (Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association). These species include the spoon-billed sandpiper (Eurynorhynchuspygmeus), of which only several hundred remain, and the Chinese crested tern (Sterna bernsteini). Maung Maung Than's eastern imperial eagle is migrates between south-eastern Europe and West Asia. Many are migratory, spending the northern hemisphere winters in Myanmar. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature the eastern imperial eagle is vulnerable species, one rating above endangered.
"I worry that the endangered species would become extinct when they migrate to Myanmar. With some species of migratory birds, there are only a few hundred left," U Thet Zaw Naing said.

Migratory birds in Myanmar fall pray to two kinds of hunters – professional bird killers and amateurs with air guns, according to conservationists. For the professional hunter, catching birds is a main source of income. Birds can be sold on the black market, either informally via personal contacts or on Facebook. "As bird hunting doesn't require capital or money it's easy to get into. Many people can make a living from this," Dr Thiri Dewi Aung said.

In Myanmar, migratory birds fly over six different flyway networks. Coastal birds such as the spoon-billed sandpiper fly towards the Gulf of Mottama, foraging for beach insects during the winter. Nanthar Island and Mayyu Estuaries, as well as the Meinmahla Kyun Wildlife Sanctuary are other coastal locations. The Indawgyi and Moeyungyi wetland wildlife sanctuaries also attract migratory birds to Myanmar's inland estuaries and lakes. The Inle Lake Wildlife Sanctuary is another destination for large numbers of migratory birds. Places where migratory birds visit need to be preserved, and people should be educated so that they can help prevent poaching. Educational programs can also help train inspectors, who can can patrol the areas where migratory birds live, she said. Such programs have already been implemented in places like Thaton, Bilin and Kyaikhto of Mon State, with some success.

Under the Conservation of Biodiversity and Protected Areas Law, anyone convicted of breeding endangered wildlife without permission shall be punished up to three years in prison, or receive a fine of between K200,000 to K500,000 lakh, or both. Anyone convicted of killing or hunting fully protected wildlife shall be punished with 3-10 years in prison.
"If migratory birds come to a wetlands area, the water levels are usually quite low. But there is plenty of food for the birds. If there is plenty of food for the birds, then there is also enough for the humans too," Dr Thiri Dewi Aung said.

Another way of raising awareness about migratory birds in Myanmar is through bird-watching tours which, in the past, have been successful in places like Inle and Thaton. But all of those tourism-based initiatives have been suspended this year due to COVID-19 restrictions. In 2000 there were just two bird-watching tour companies in Myanmar, but last year that number increased to six. "Local bird-watchers like to visit the lakes or forests to observe birds, and some people go for pleasure whilst others go for research purposes," said Ko Ngwe Lin.

Myanmar his home to 138 species of aquatic birds out of over 400 species in total. The Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association (BANCA) will collect data for a comprehensive list of aquatic birds throughout the country in the second week of January 2021.