China-backed Dam Project May Threaten Myanmar Wildlife Sanctuary


Ashley Thompson, VOA

Date Published

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Environmental activists say plans for a large dam threaten wildlife sanctuaries in Myanmar’s northern Karen state.

China would finance the proposed Hatgyi dam on Southeast Asia’s Salween River. The Sinohydro company of China and Thailand’s Electricity Generating Authority are building the dam.

The Salween is the longest river in Southeast Asia that does not have a major dam. Now, developers want to build seven dams on the main part of the river.

Saw Paul Sein Twa is the executive director of the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network, or KESAN. He says the proposed dam project should be stopped. He says his group needs to study the wildlife in the area.

“The dam will flood the area where we have found so many species — including tigers — (that) we need to really preserve. We need to do more research (and) survey to find out their status,” he said.

Species under threat

Researchers wrote about the sanctuary last month in the Oryx Journal. They studied the area over a period of five years. They found that many tigers, leopards, Asian black bears and elephants live in the wildlife sanctuary area.

The researchers said the Karen people need help in their effort to protect, in their words, “one of Southeast Asia’s last intact rich and diverse ecosystems.”

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature says at least 17 of the 31 species found in the area are threatened or in danger of disappearing.

Groups including the World Wide Fund for Nature, zoological associations from Scotland and Europe and Australia’s Wildlife Asia have supported the five-year study.

Clare Campbell is the director of Wildlife Asia. She said protecting the area from threats like development and poaching requires international help. She told VOA that “threats are emerging all the time.”

Teams of local Karen people help guard the area. A program to protect the sanctuary against poaching led to the creation of the groups.

Campbell said the anti-poaching teams want to expand the areas they protect.

Political factors

The government of Myanmar has reached cease-fire agreements with several ethnic armies, including the Karen one. And more developers are entering the country, following government reforms and increased political calm.

But the reduction in conflict has led to an increase in attacks on animals. Since 2012, Myanmar has reported an increase in yearly elephant poaching. Officials blame the increase on the demand for animal parts. Demand is especially high in China.

Conservationists fear that China’s growing influence in Myanmar may cause the Karen leadership to stop supporting the sanctuary.

During recent cease-fire talks, a top Karen rebel visited China. He was the first such leader to do so.

Saw Paul says some experts are worried that the Karen leadership may end their support for the sanctuary, especially since China is backing the dam project.

VOA was unable to talk with Karen officials.

In an effort to stop the government from supporting the Hatgyi dam, the Karen have launched the Karen Wildlife Conservation Initiative, or KWCI.

The KWCI brings together the Karen Forestry Department, KESAN and Wildlife Asia. The group has named an area — including the place where the dam is to be built — a Karen cultural and community reserve and wildlife sanctuary.