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Myanmar Miscellany

The Virgin and Beautiful Hukawng Valley
by Saw Tun Khaing and Than Myint

Travelling along the Ledo Road on Naga Mountain Range

According to the British naturalist Frank Kingdon-Ward Myanmar is a plant hunter’s paradise. But the question is, is it true only for botanists? What about the zoologists who are trying to discover new species of animal life? Truly Myanmar is still very much undiscovered: much territory, especially up north, still remains to be explored.

The Hukawng Valley straddling Tanaing Township in the Myitkyina District of Kachin State in the northernmost part of the country and the northern part of Nan-Yun Township Sagaing Division is indeed a natural paradise. The valley covers some 5,586 sq miles in area and is bounded to the north, east and west by towering mountain ranges and to the south by lower slopes. The Patkoi Mountain Range in the west forms the watershed area for the Chindwin and Brahmaputra Rivers. The Kumon Mountain Range on the east constitutes the watershed area and headwaters of the tributaries of the Chindwin and Ayeyarwady Rivers. Mountain streams from the catchment areas on the eastern and western ranges flow towards the plains of the Hukawng Valley, where they combine to become the largest tributary of the Chindwin, the Tanaing-kha.

The Hukawng Valley held great promise as a possible candidate for Protected Area Status; and so in 1999, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) based in the United States (which has been working with the Ministry of Forestry since 1994) mounted an expedition to the Hukawng Valley in collaboration with the Ministry of Forestry. The Expedition was led by Dr Alan Rabinowitz of WCS and included Saw Ttin Khaing and Than Myint from the Yangon WCS office, scientists from the Ministry of Forestry, the Ministry of Education, Myanmar Floriculturists Association and other support staff. There were 14 members in the Biological Expedition and the duration of the Expedition was from May 14 to 2 June 1999.

The Route


The aims of the Expedition were varied and comprehensive. It included the study of the current status of forests and wildlife and to gauge the possibility of sustained nature conservation work within the region; to review the current status of the area that had been proposed to be established as a Trans-boundary Protected Area since 1960 and to recommend that it be designated as a Protected Area should the prospects appear favourable; to determine whether the distribution of the leaf deer species (phet gyi) studied during the 1997 and 1998 Biological Expeditions to the Putao District of the Kachin State extends as far as the Hukawng Valley; to catalogue orchid species found in the area; to study rare and hitherto unknown avian and animal species and to conduct a geological survey of the mineral resources and to gauge the feasibility of eco-tourism development.

A Naga couple

Myitkyina was designated as the staging area for the Expedition. All preparations were completed and the Expedition was ready to start on May 15 1999. The first part of the journey was easy: a distance of 120 miles by motor transport. After long and weary hours along the dusty and bumpy road we reached Tanaing which is a rather small town with just a cluster of houses and some government buildings. The Expedition rested for the night at Tanaing but most of us were unable to sleep thinking of the adventures we might encounter on our journey into the wilds of the Hukawng Valley.

Crossing a stream near Nan-Yun

The next day everybody rose early; after a quick breakfast we were off. This time our destination was a town called Nun-Yun another 80 miles further on. It was tough going climbing steep razor-backed hills or descending deep into dark valleys. But everybody was busy with their designated tasks. The Expedition members were divided into 6 teams; the Mammology team, the Forestry team, the Orchid team, the Ornithology team, the Geology team and the Medical team.

Dwarf deer

The Mammology team was to determine the distribution of the extremely rare leaf deer (phet gyi) as well as those of the tiger, elephant and other species and also to investigate poaching of wild animals and estimate the prospects for the establishment of a protected area. The Mammology team was able to collect some skulls of the phet gyi, which is much smaller in size than ordinary deer species at Nant Lin village on the Patkoi Mountain Range. The village is about 12 miles from Nan-Yun and this discovery validated our theory that the leaf deer distribution range extends from Nongmon township in Putao district in the east then along the Kumon Mountain Range to Nan-Yun in the Hukawng Valley and extending further to the Patkoi Mountain Range in the extreme west of the country bordering India. Another discovery was that phet gyis are seen only at locations above 3,000 feet and they do not frequent low-lying areas. The Expedition also hoped to get a good collection of animal bones for future research but was disappointed with the poor quality of the bones they found along the way.

One of the many aims of the Expedition was to determine
the distribution of the extremly rare leaf deer

Tanaing Township consists mostly of low-lying plains with a few mountain ranges and slopes over 3,000 feet at some places. Annual rainfall is approximately 150 inches and the whole area is lush and green. The mountains and valleys are all covered with many commercially valuable tree species as well as rattan and bamboo breaks. The Hukawng Valley itself is an alluvial plain that is very fertile and suitable for cultivation of crops. However the local inhabitants state that agriculture is uneconomic and unfeasible due to periodic inundations of fields by heavy rainfall. Some gold panning is carried out but no suitable areas exist for large-scale commercial exploitation.

The Ornithology team was quite excited as their members sighted and recorded 135 avian species. They were also able to sight and record such rare birds as the Asian paradise fly-catcher (Terpsihone paradis), the grey peacock-pheasant (Polylectroii bicalcaratus), the green peafowl (Pavo muticus,), the green imperial pigeon (Ducula aenea), the great hornbill (Buceros bicornis), the minivet (Pericrocotus flammeus) and the white-crested laughing thrush (Garrulax leucolophus). On the return trip by boat from Shin-Bwae-Yan to Tanaing 63 avaian species were sighted; out of these 35 were water-birds. They were able to spot such rare birds as the spot-billed pelican (Pelecanus philippensis), the eastern pelican (Pelecanus onocrotalus), the white-winged wood duck (Cairinia scutulata), the green peafowl (Pavo muticus), the great thick knee (Esacus magnirostris recurvirostris),
all of which are on the endangered list.

Traditional Naga House

The villages along the way were mostly Kachin or Naga. The Kachin villages are either Christian or Buddhist as well as some with traditional beliefs; but the Nagas still cling to their age old customs. The villagers mostly engage in shifting cultivation that is very harmful to the environment. Hunting is however a secondary activity.

The Team with Naga Villagers

Draught animals

Tanaing Township is relatively rich in elephants. This was evidenced by the many elephant spoors the Expedition frequently sighted on the trek. This fact raised our spirits because reports of widespread illegal hunting or poaching of wild as well as domesticated elephants had surfaced in our interviews with several villagers along the way. In our various interviews with the villagers we were also told that the population of elephants, tigers, leopards, wild boars, bears, samburs and barking deers had declined. We also heard that unscrupulous traders from neighbouring countries were offering prime rates for the tusks as well as for elephant hides. This placed both the wild and tame elephants at risk. However, the Mammology team was unable to obtain an exact population count of either the domesticated or feral elephants, as the owners of domesticated elephants do not maintain proper registration of their charges. The main reason cited for this lapse was the high registration fees levied by the government.

The unique characteristic of the elephant catchers of this area is that they use the “milar shikar” or lassooing method to capture wild elephants. A wild elephant is selected out of a herd and the elephant approached cautiously. The catcher riding on a tame elephant casts the lassoo around the selected wild elephant and with the help of other catchers slowly draws the victim out of the herd. People use elephants as draught and transport animals. They are used to plough the fields as well as for human and cargo transportation. The elephants however are not employed in timber extraction.

Gene pool

Many orchids were observed growing along the route. The Orchid team was able to identify 39 species of which 4 were species uncommon to Myanmar. One fact established on this trip was that the black orchid encountered in the Putao district of the Kachin State was not found in the Hukawng Valley. On the other hand, a great many of the other orchid species found in the Nongmon Putao and the Hkakaborazi National Park areas are present on the forested slopes of the Valley. Of the many orchid species in the world nine are listed as endangered and the Expedition found 5 species from the endangered list on the trip. Therefore the Hukawng Valley where a great variety of wild orchids flourish should be accorded protection as a gene pool of Myanmar’s orchid richness and diversity. The Orchid team’s opinion was that if they had more time they would have been able to identify more species of wild orchids including those with a ready and lucrative export market.

Bamboo orchid

One factor that the Orchid team felt reassured about was that the local inhabitants showed no interest in the orchids nor was there any evidence of an orchid trade.

The villages along the way have difficulty in obtaining medical assistance or medicines for their illnesses. The Medical team attached to the Expedition tended to the health needs not only of the Expedition members but also of all the villagers met on the survey route. The Expedition assisted local health centres and dispensaries through donations of much needed medical supplies and provision of primary health care and personal hygiene awareness lectures to the villagers.

Ledo Road

The Ledo Road is one of the most significant engineering feats of World War II. This road was built by the Allies to deliver military supplies from India to China. The highway is 1,030 miles long and crosses some 700 bridges. The final stages of the road follows the original route taken by Marco Polo. The Myitkyina to Namti stretch of this road is an all-weather road. From Namti to Tanaing, the highway becomes an earthen fair-weather road. The 100 feet wide road from Tanaing to Shin-Bwae-Yan crosses relatively flat land and apart from some dilapidated bridges remains in reasonably good condition. The stretch from ShinBwae-Yan to Nun-Yun howevee runs through undulating terrain and is not very good. The Shin-Bwae-Yan airfield in spite of lack of maintenance for over 50 years can easily be made usable.

On the return journey the Expedition came back by river from ShinBwae-Yan and arrived back at Tanaing on May 31 1999. The trip took approximately 17 days and was a great success: all the separate teams were able to fulfil their assigned tasks and thus came away satisfied.

The headwaters of the numerous streams and tributaries that come together to form the Chindwin River (which is itself one of the major tributaries of the Ayeyarwady River) are all located within the Hukawng Valley. To date the Hukaung Valley is still pristine and beautiful; it is still covered with dense forest which is home to a variety of mammalian and avian species and very rich in biodiversity with ecosystems still intact as it is far removed from major human settlements. Apart from the zoologists and the biologists, this area would also have a great appeal for nature-lovers, and therefore holds great potential for development of ecotourism in the future because of its unspoilt environment; the sense of exploration with opportunities to see a variety of mammals and avian species in their natural habitat (many of which are on the endangered list) lends itself to this form of tourism.

The Expedition also learnt that in December 1995 the Kachin State Forest Department had submitted to the Forest Department Headquarters in Yangon  that 3,063sq miles around Tanaing Township be designated as a Protected Area. By incorporating the presently suggested area covering 2,494 sq miles into the proposed protected area submitted by the Kachin State Forest Department and establishing it as the Hukawng Valley Wildlife Sanctuary this would be a huge success for both scientists and nature lovers and for the country in general as it would raise the percentage of Protected Areas in the country to 3 percent.

U SanwTun Khaing is the Country Coordinator of WCS Yangon Office and U Than Mvint is the Training coordinator.

With thanks to the Myanmar Forestry Journal and the authors


In 2004 the Myanmar government gave the go-ahead for the creation of the world's largest tiger reserve of 7,700 sq miles in the Hukawng Valley. Click here for more iunformation