The entire continent of North America has 914 species of birds. Not bad—except that Myanmar, which is only about the size of Texas, has a whopping 1,114 species of birds, according to a new avian survey. That’s a whole lot of biodiversity for one small country. Myanmar’s bird population includes at least a dozen endangered species, including the Scaly-sided Merganser, Masked Finfoot, and Spotted Greenshank, which have survived in part because of the country’s reclusive past. But that may all change, now that the country has thrown its doors open to the foreign venturists.
From 2010 to 2014, conservation groups including the Bird and Nature Society, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Flora and Fauna International conducted a sweeping survey of Myanmar’s forests, lakes, and shorelines to find out which birds inhabit its lush terrains. The survey turned up 20 avian species that had never been recorded in the country, including the Pied Falconet and Giant Frigatebird. Despite this wave of newly recorded diversity, conservationists fear that Myanmar’s birds are in danger of poaching, pesticides, and encroachment from farming. With increasing foreign influence, environmental threats are on an uptick.
Myanmar—formerly known as, and also sometimes still called, Burma—has spent almost all of the past 50 years under an abusive military dictatorship and isolationist policy. The country’s lack of development has allowed it to retain large swathes of wilderness that have neither been cultivated nor explored. In the wake of the military junta’s demise in 2011, a few local non-profit groups formed to protect these lands. Some organizations, including the BirdLife International affiliate Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association (BANCA), have been successful. One of BANCA’s biggest missions has been to protect the critically-endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper by preserving the bird’s breeding grounds in Myanmar.
Soon, the country will be grappling with the challenges of managing large tracts of pristine wilderness. As of March 2012, foreigners have been allowed to lease—but not own—land in Myanmar. The country’s rich soil and former status as “the rice bowl of Asia” (in the early 1960s it was the world’s largest exporter of rice) makes it attractive to investors from nearby China and India, among other countries. No one really knows whether protecting natural resources is high on the government’s list of priorities. In light of recent discoveries, it should at least cast a more watchful eye on its precious environmental assets.