Burma’s wildlife threatened

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The Irrawaddy dolphin, named after Burma’s longest river, lands on the list of endangered species because of chemical poisoning brought by the gold mining industry and destructive fishing practices. The 59 dolphins found in the upper part of the river in 1998 have been reduced to as few as 37 after four years.

Gifted with natural environmental resources, the 1200-odd miles of the Bay of Bengal, the country at the coastal fringe of the South East Asian country, now known as Myanmar (formerly Burma), have a vast pool of genetic material for marine life and varieties of abundant coastal habitats.

However, aside from the two to three metre long Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcella brevirostris), at least four species of fishes including ‘Giant catfish’, two species of crocodiles, five species of turtles and one more aquatic mammals found in Burma are officially listed as “endangered species related to the fisheries.” This according to a paper submitted last

month by the delegation of Burma’s Department of Fisheries for a regional technical conference held in Iloilo City.

There is more bad news on marine turtle. There were some 1.5 millions eggs of Olive Ridley found in the Irrawaddy division or delta region of Burma in 1931, and an estimated five thousands green turtles nested in 1911. However, only about 100 nests of olive turtles and 300 nests of green turtles were found in 2003.

The marine species are threatened by the steadily encroaching fishers. The cash-strapped military junta ruling the country is accused of corruption and lack of transparency. These are other factors that are driving the species into extinction or away from the waters of Burma.

Burma has enacted the fisheries law since 1989, which has provisions banning the use of explosive substances and chemicals to catch fish. It also provides penalties like long-term imprisonment. Apparently the laws were not enough to end destructive fishing methods.

Mercury runoff from hundreds of licensed and unlicensed gold mines along the Irrawaddy River in upper Burma also kills marine life. The gold mines are run by local and Chinese companies, many of them owned or have close ties with armed groups that have cease-fire agreements with the ruling military junta that is also called Peace and Development Council.

Local fishers plant fine mesh nets to the riverbed, which haphazardly trap dolphins, fish and other animals that swim to them. This method is strongly criticized by conservationists.

In some cases, authority themselves committed human rights violations when punishing destructive fishing practices. Thirteen fishers from Thai-owned fishing boat using dynamite and explosives to fish were shot dead by the troops of the Light Infantry Battalion 267 patrolling the Jalan Island in Botepyin town of Thaninthayi Division in Southern Burma on July 13, 2005.

Illegal fishing continues despite the clampdown. There are about 20 fishing vessels operating in that area alone. The relatives of the dead fishers said that troops were bribed in previous occasion. Poverty also drives local youths to risk with their lives to earn.

At the suburb of the Burma’s capital Rangoon, teenage boys with high voltage batteries looking for eels is not a strange scene. Electric fishing kills everything in range, allowing them to easily pick up dead fish from the surface of water. Farther from Rangoon, electric fishing is even more rampant. The extension of aquaculture along the costal line has dealt severe blow to the aquatic species and the ecologically balancing mangrove forests. The interests of limited business are calling the shots over that of local communities and the national economy. The government is promoting eco-tourism at the some parts of the delta but failed to balance development and conservation. Devastation in mangrove forest leads to the flood and storms, bringing more hardship to the people in the coastal region.