Chainsaws imperil an old-growth mangrove stronghold in southern Myanmar
- Tanintharyi, Myanmar's southern-most state, is home to the country's last remaining old-growth mangrove forest. The trees support village life and a booming fishing industry up and down the coast.
- But logging for charcoal and fuel wood, much of it illegal, is taking a toll. Studies show that roughly two-thirds of the region's remaining mangrove forests have been degraded, with consequences for people and wildlife.
- Conservationists are attempting to expand community forestry and set up mangrove reserves to combat the widespread degradation.
TANINTHARYI, Myanmar — When viewed from the bow of a boat, the shoreline near the city of Myeik in southern Myanmar is all green. In every direction, low-slung mangroves blanket the horizon, their trunks submerged under several feet of water at high tide. The trees anchor a sprawling landscape that supports village life and a booming fishing industry up and down the shoreline of Tanintharyi, Myanmar's southernmost state. But in many places, what appears green and lush from a distance disguises a landscape in peril.
Christoph Zockler, an ornithologist with the German foundation Manfred-Hermsen-Stiftung for Nature Conservation and Environmental Protection, has seen this up close. He first traveled through this labyrinth of coastal islands and mudflats in 2013 in search of shorebirds. In November of 2016, in collaboration with the U.K.-based NGO Fauna and Flora International (FFI), Zockler and a team of researchers from Myeik launched a 12-day expedition of coastal Tanintharyi by boat, sleeping on board and, when the tides allowed, camping on shore. The team cataloged otters, dolphins, vast swarms of crabs at low tide, a wide variety of fish and more than 200 species of birds, including the critically endangered spoon-billed sandpiper (Calidris pygmaea), of which no more than 600 likely remain on Earth.
But among the marine wildlife and endangered bird sightings, the team also observed human activity that is putting the future of the mangroves in jeopardy. At 16 of the 20 locations they visited, they witnessed logging with chainsaws: large old-growth trees chopped at the base; boats stacked high with logs destined for the furnaces of factories in Myeik, other cities in Myanmar, and even Thailand. In many cases, only saplings were left behind.
For a region that holds Myanmar's last remaining old-growth mangrove forest, the rapidity and breadth of the destruction was shocking, Zockler said. "These mangroves are like nothing anywhere else in the country, in maturity, in stature, in ecological integrity," he said. "But I don't know for how long. The clock is ticking and the pressure is enormous."