Marco Polo visiting Myanmar in the 13th century found “vast jungles teeming with elephants, unicorns and other wild beasts.” Some of that description remains accurate. Natural forest cover is estimated at around 43 percent with another 31 percent in secondary forest. Myanmar is rich in birdlife with an estimated 1,000 resident and migratory species. Waterways of coastal delta and inland on the southern peninsula attract waterfowl from all over Southeast Asia.
Leopards stalk muntjac or barking deer in lowland jungles where little fishing cats look for smaller meals in and along streams. Clouded leopards, whose shorter legs enable them to move swiftly along tree branches, prey on arboreal species such as monkeys, squirrels, even birds, at altitudes up to 6,500 feet (2,000 m).
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The world’s second-smallest deer has been found in remote mountains, standing just 20 inches (51 cm) high at the shoulder with antlers just an inch (2.5 cm) long, and scientists have recently discovered blue sheep, Chinese black barking deer, and stone martens, species previously unknown here.
Engaging red pandas forage in tall trees in northern Myanmar, and serows and ghorals (aka ghorals) skip easily along steep mountain terrain. There are crab-eating mongeese, Asiatic black bears and Malayan sun bears, and thousands of Asian elephants, perhaps a third of those in the world—though most make up the world’s largest working elephant herd, employed in logging and agriculture.
With vast splendid landscapes still intact, Myanmar is regarded as one of the most important Indo-Pacific countries for biodiversity conservation. Its species richness is reflected in some 100 kinds of mammals, 300 reptiles, the most diverse bird population in Southeast Asia, and at least 7,000 kinds of plants (over 1,000 varieties of orchid), in habitats ranging from mangrove swamps, tropical rain forests and coral reefs in the south, to temperate forests of conifers, oaks, and rhododendrons in the far north, and snowcapped mountains over 19,000 feet (5,900 m) in the easternmost Himalayas. High mountains form borders with India and Bangladesh on the west, China on the northeast, Laos and Thailand on the east, and are intersected by two great rivers, the Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) and Salween.
Tigers have become rare in most places despite Myanmar’s having 40 percent of Southeast Asia’s best tiger habitat, according to a study by Wildlife Conservation Society. In 1984 at government request the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) assisted a field survey identifying areas suitable for national parks and reserves. But the program largely was not implemented, the government saying its budget was needed for road-building.
Myanmar lists 31 protected area sanctuaries, but little is known about many of them. Their claimed area covers about four percent of the country.
Since shortly after World War II Myanmar has been one of the world’s most repressive governments, until recently closed to outside economic contact as well as international travel. Recently the country has opened up somewhat, and visitors will find, despite continuing political difficulties and travel restrictions in some areas, a beautiful country with friendly people. Most wildlife reserves are not easy to see and many are threatened by unsustainable hunting, timber poaching for lumber and charcoal, destructive agricultural practices, mining, dam proposals, and habitat encroachment by high population growth. This may improve if the government comes to respect ecotourism benefits as justifying more reserves with supporting funds for maintenance and protection. Several international organizations are working to help, including Wildlife Conservation Society, Smithsonian, and International Crane Foundation.
Best times are December–February—temperatures rise from March on, and wet season is usually mid-May–mid-October.
Yangon (Rangoon) is served by international airlines, and connecting domestic airlines serve Mandalay and major centers. There’s an extensive bus network but few good roads, many requiring 4WD. Foreigners at least until recently have been restricted to designated hotels, which can be basic but costly.
AHLAUNGDAW KATHAPAW NATIONAL PARK as well as...
Mount Hkakabo-Razi National Park
Hlawga National Park
Lampi Island Marine National Park
Popa Mountain Park
More about the Reserves in myanmar
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