Chainsaws Imperil an Old-Growth Mangrove Stronghold in Southern Myanmar

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.”

According to data from the University of Maryland, the municipality of Myeik lost around 16 percent of its tree cover between 2001 and 2016 — mostly from mangroves. Satellite images from the San Francisco-based company Planet Labs show that mangrove deforestation continued in 2017, particularly in the southeastern portion of the region. However, other research shows that that kind of outright forest loss is actually less common in the area than low-grade forest degradation, which happens when larger, more valuable trees are cut from a forest but smaller trees are left behind. Forest degradation can be subtle and hard to detect.

In an unpublished 2016 study, Anna Stephani, a graduate student at the University of Bayreuth in Germany, and several colleagues used satellite images to examine degrees of mangrove loss in the area around Myeik and further south. They characterized just 22 percent of the forest as “intact to slightly degraded,” a category that consisted of old-growth forest that was either untouched or logged lightly enough that it could still regenerate easily. A full 45 percent of the remaining forest she classified as “degraded,” and 18 percent as “heavily degraded.” Another study, conducted across the entirety of Tanintharyi by a team from FFI and the U.S.-based Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, found that 66 percent of the region’s mangroves were degraded and just 34 percent remained intact.

The level of deforestation has conservationists concerned that Tanintharyi’s mangroves could soon meet the same fate as those of the Irrawaddy Delta, a vast, populous area to the north where human activity has decimated once plentiful mangroves. Located near Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, the delta has lost more than 80 percent of its mangroves over the past three decades. The destruction has been so widespread that international organizations are considering a plan to replant mangroves throughout the delta using drones. The forests that remain are severely degraded, said Zockler.

The effects of the loss on people have been tremendous, highlighted by Cyclone Nargis, which plowed through the low-lying delta in 2008 and killed 140,000 people. Had more of the mangrove forest been preserved, experts believe thousands of deaths could have been prevented.

 

Source: The Mongabay

 

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