Flight or fight


Source: Myanmar Times

Date: 3 April 2018

Birdwatchers battle to save Paleik Lake, a haven for water birds

Every year scores of birds flock to Paleik Lake, 14 kilometres east of Mandalay, where they sojourn for up to two months before continuing thousands of kilometers north or south in search of breeding grounds.

Every year, dozens of birdwatchers also gather on the banks of the lake to bear witness to this age-old ritual of survival.

Paleik Lake, home to some 30 migratory bird species, sits on route of two of the world's 9 major migratory bird routes – the Central Asian and East Asian-Australasian flyways.

Wild geese, swans and rare birds such as the Baer's pochard fly these routes twice a year, on journeys which see many die of exhaustion along the way. The lakes around Mandalay play a vital role in the survival of these species, serving as rest stops where the birds can re-gather their strength before continuing.

But this year, Paleik Lake has seen the lowest numbers of migratory birds in recent memory. Birdwatchers blame the decline on an increase in hunting and the destruction of their natural habitat to make way for roads, farmland and houses.

"This year is the worst yet," says birdwatcher U Zay Maung Thein.

Paradise lost

Seeing the lake in its current state is unbearable for U Myo Tin Mhwe, a member of the local Bird Lovers Association.

Ten years ago there were 37 water bird species living on Paleik Lake, a fresh water lake which served by the Myitnge River – a tributary of the Ayeyarwaddy.

Earlier this year, he counted just 20. Once teeming with wildlife, the east side of the lake is now completely barren, he said.

"Nine years ago, a wealthy person from Paleik bought the land around the lake and made roads and boundaries for cars, which has caused the birds' food source to disappear. Trees which were 10 to 15 feet (3 metres to 4.5 metres) high were cut so the birds now have nowhere to sleep as well."

Increasingly, the birds are hunted for their meat and captured to be sold at pagodas where they are released by pilgrims for good luck.

U Myo Tin Mhwe has met with Forestry Department officials and trustees of pagodas in the area to urge them stop allowing people to sell birds on pagoda grounds.

But despite almost 20 years of leading conservation efforts, U Myo Tin Mhwe feels like he is fighting a losing battle.

Small steps

Paleik's proximity to a popular local tourist spot could be its saving grace.

The lake is situated near Paleik pagoda, an attraction for both local and foreign tourists who come to see its reptile inhabitants – a family of giant Myanmar pythons.

Groups of tourists do occasionally visit the lake to bird watch. U Zay Maung Thein wants tourists to pay a small fee for bird watching which could be used to pay for conservation efforts.

But local officials say that while they have no immediate plans to turn the lake into a tourist attraction, the government is taking some steps towards conservation.

"We have no plan to promote the lake as a tourism site but we are cooperating with local authorities to educate people on how to protect the birds," said U Pyi Soe Ko Ko, head of Tada U township Forestry Department.

"We put up notice boards at the entrance of Paleik Lake on March 2 telling people not to kill or catch the birds."

Nevertheless, conservationists like U Myo Tin Mhwe and U Zay Maung Thein worry that if the regional government doesn't step in to assist conservation efforts, their days of bird watching could soon be over. 

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