Radio Expeditions

World's Biggest Tiger Reserve

Radio Expeditions: Myanmar Creates Sanctuary the Size of Vermont

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Listen: Extended Version of the Interview with Alan Rabinowitz

Photo of tiger captured by automatic "camera trap" in Myanmar’s Hukawng Valley. Wildlife Conservation Society hide caption

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Alan Rabinowitz crosses a rope bridge in northern Myanmar.

Alan Rabinowitz crosses a rope bridge in northern Myanmar. Steve Winter, National Geographic hide caption

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Other big cats in the reserve: An Asiatic leopard cub in the Hukawng Valley of Myanmar. hide caption

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Myanmar is sandwiched between China, India, Thailand, Laos and Bangladesh. hide caption

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Myanmar Forest Department members study "camera trap" tiger photos. Steve Winter, National Geographic hide caption

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Five members of the so-called Tiger Team holding up confiscated animal parts.

Members of Myanmar's "tiger team" pose with animal parts confiscated from poachers. Steve Winter, National Geographic hide caption

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An elephant supply train trudges single-file along a jungle p.ath

An elephant supply train trudges through the jungles of Myanmar. Steve Winter, National Geographic hide caption

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Officials for the government of Myanmar, once known as Burma, will soon announce the creation of the largest tiger reserve in the world — an entire valley nearly the size of Vermont.

Even though relations between Myanmar and the Western world are strained, the driving force behind this is an American.

Alan Rabinowitz, director of science and exploration for the Wildlife Conservation Society, has dedicated the past 10 years to field work and conservation projects in the northern forests of Myanmar.

Most recently, he has been working with the Myanmar Forest Department to triple the size of the 2,500-square-mile Hukawang Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, where probably fewer than 100 tigers remain..

The size of the reserve is crucial — Rabinowitz says the key to maintaining a viable, flourishing tiger population isn't the heavily guarded wildlife sanctuaries typical of other tiger reserves. Rather, he advocates a porous environment, where tigers can roam naturally over long distances to hunt and mate.

"Animals like tigers and elephants — the largest carnivores and mammals on Earth — are not going to survive if their future is just in isolated pockets of very hard-core protected areas," Rabinowitz tells NPR's Renee Montagne, as part of this edition of Radio Expeditions, a co-production between NPR and the National Geographic.

"We've got to find a way where we can create landscapes of both core-protected areas and places where people live — and both elements of that equation can be balanced. This tiger reserve will be a model for that."

The Hukawng Valley is mostly inhospitable to humans, with its rugged mountains, thick forests, floods and malaria. But tigers thrive here — as do elephants, clouded leopards and a host of other wild species quickly becoming endangered in the rest of Asia.

When Rabinowitz first surveyed the tigers in the Hukawng Valley back in 1999, all he could hear were sounds of wild creatures. But when the government cleared an old, overgrown highway, it set off a gold rush. Tens of thousands of miners seeking gold poured into the valley. In places where Rabinowitz once saw only tiger tracks, he now saw trucks and mining camps.

Rabinowitz entered into talks with a rebel group that controls the valley, Kachin Independent Army, or KIA. He tells Montagne that both the KIA and the Myanmar government — most often described in the press as a repressive military junta — were exceptionally receptive to the idea of creating the tiger reserve. Rabinowitz credits the nation's pride in its wildlife and heritage.

Rabinowitz will soon travel back to Myanmar to begin what he calls "the really hard work" — sitting down with government officials to talk about funding, wildlife management strategies and how the Wildlife Conservation Society will work together with Myanmar's forestry department to make what will be the world's largest tiger reserve a reality

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