Myanmar has announced that Hukaung Valley Tiger Reserve will be nearly tripled in size, making the protected area the largest tiger reserve in the world. Spanning 17,477 square kilometers (6,748 square miles), the newly expanded park is approximately the size of Kuwait and larger than the US state of Connecticut.
After years of illegal hunting and a decline in prey the reserve may hold as few as 50 tigers, yet experts hope with protection the population could bounce back. Although tigers are the star, the park holds many other species including some 370 bird species.
Besides the tiger, which is listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List, the area contains a number of threatened species, including the Indo-Chinese leopard (Near Threatened), clouded leopard (Vulnerable), Malayan sun bear (Vulnerable), Himalayan black bear (Vulnerable), sambar deer (Vulnerable), a wild bovine known as the gaur (Vulnerable), Asian elephants (Endangered), and the Rufous-necked hornbill (Critically Endangered).
“I have dreamt of this day for many years,” said Alan Rabinowitz in a press release. Rabinowitz is the head of the cat-conservation group Panthera and leader of the first biological expedition into Hukaung Valley in 1997. During this expedition Rabinowitz discovered a new mammal: the leaf deer, the second smallest deer in the world.
“The strides we made in 2004 were groundbreaking,” he continued, “but protecting this entire valley to ensure tigers are able to live and roam freely is a game changer. This reserve is one of the most important stretches of tiger habitat in the world, and I am thrilled that the people and government of Myanmar understand the importance of preserving it.”
The valley is home to the Indochinese tiger (Panthera tigris corbetti), one of six surviving subspecies of tiger (three have gone extinctâ€”all in the Twentieth Century). Experts are unsure just how many of this subspecies survive: estimates range from a low of 350 to a high of 2,500. Tigers have been decimated by poaching for traditional Chinese medicines, habitat loss, prey declines, and human-predator conflict. Today 3,000 to 5,000 tigers survive in the wild. Suitable habitat for the world’s biggest cat has declined by 41 percent in the last decade alone.