Can Ecotourism Save Myanmar's Wildlife? [Slide Show]
As the country transitions to modernity, the fate of its stunning biodiversity hangs in the balance
Indawgyi Lake is famous for Shwe Myitzu Pagoda, a pilgrimage site for local Buddhists, accessible only by boat during most of the year. But it is also home to elephants, endangered hog deer, eastern hoolock gibbons and nearly 450 species of birds. Credits: Rachel Nuwer
After decades of brutal military rule, Myanmar's government is finally loosening its grip on the country, and Yangon is quickly transitioning into modernity. Skyscrapers are juxtaposed next to centuries-old temples; ox-drawn carts wait in traffic jams alongside SUVs; and crumbling colonial buildings are restored to chic restaurants and hotels.
Much of the countryside remains rural and wild. But new roads are making it easier to reach formerly remote places, and foreign prospectors are taking note of the ample timber, mineral and petroleum resources at hand, putting the survival of Myanmar's wildlife at risk.
Conservationists think they might have a partial solution for both incentivizing Myanmar to safeguard its wildlife and for providing the money to do so: ecotourism. Indawgyi Lake in Kachin State, in the country's far north, is serving as a first case study for testing the viability of that idea.
Indawgyi Lake is famous for Shwe Myitzu Pagoda, a pilgrimage site for local Buddhists, accessible only by boat during most of the year. But it is also home to elephants, endangered hog deer, eastern hoolock gibbons and nearly 450 species of birds.
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Ngwe Lwin, a program director at the non-profit Fauna and Flora International, is leading efforts to develop ecotourism at Indawgyi Lake. He often welcomes ecotourists to one of the two modest guesthouses at Lonton village--the only places on the lake where foreign visitors are legally allowed to stay.
Meeting friendly local people is a highlight of a stay at Indawgyi Lake. In the future, Lwin and his colleagues hope to establish homestays, craft demonstrations and cooking classes with families in the area.
Crucially, local people have remained steadily supportive of slowly introducing ecotourism to the area. “The number of customers have increased for me, and I hope more come,” says Myint Myint Khine, owner of Khaing Restaurant in Indawgyi. “That said, I don’t want any big hotels coming here, because the environment and peoples’ lives would be changed.”
Clare Luoni, an optometrist from New Zealand, takes to the lake by kayak. Like the 300 or so other tourists who made it to Indawgyi last year, she came here to discover a corner of Myanmar that few others see. As ecotourism develops in the area, it might come at the expense of some of Indawgyi's magical wildness and remoteness. But that is a trade-off conservationists may be willing to make.
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[Editor’s note: Science writer Rachel Nuwer went to Myanmar to report on efforts to develop ecotourism there as a means of preserving the country’s remarkable biodiversity for her story in the May issue of Scientific American. Check out the slide show below for images from her trip. Her reporting for this story was paid for with a grant from the Society of Environmental Journalists.]
This article was originally published with the title "Can Ecotourism Save Myanmar's Wildlife?" in Scientific American 314, 5, (May 2016)
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