Paradise Found - Part 2 / by David Johnstone

FIVE DAYS AT LAKE INDAWGYI, KACHIN STATE, NORTHERN BURMA

After settling into the guesthouse - there’s only two in Lon Ton therefore the only two you can stay in on the entire lake - we took lunch.

Various pots were opened containing everything from beef, chicken, fish, vegetables and a variety of offal to beans, potatoes and greens. The food in general throughout Burma is basic but tasty and organic and you certainly get your money’s worth - a decent, sizeable meal will set you back around 2,500 khat, about £1.30!

I wrote my diary accompanied by the ubiquitous and highly addictive coffee mix - powdered coffee, milk and sugar in a sachet - sitting on the veranda by the lake. It was an exquisite view. Little Cormorants perched on wooden poles by the water’s edge joined by white-throated Kingfisher and a host of other smaller birds. A family of striped pigs munched away peacefully on the swamp weeds. All very idyllic  

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Great Cormorants take off from a tree

Great Cormorants take off from a tree

 A Rich Environment

The lake was established as a wildlife sanctuary in 1999 and covers almost 300 square miles. It was also recognised as an ASEAN Heritage Park in 2003 and has recently been awarded UNESCO status for its importance internationally. It includes five forest reserves totalling around 201,000 acres and is home to a large array of rare birds and mammals.

The forests to the east and west are no-go zones due to internecine fighting

The forests to the east and west are no-go zones due to internecine fighting

 Out-of-Bounds and Under Pressure

Due to the ongoing civil unrest between the Burmese military and the Kachin Idependence Army that’s been raging since independence in 1947, the forests to the north, west and east of the lake are inaccessible and out-of-bounds to all foreign travellers. A real shame as they would no doubt be a biodiversity hotspot. They’ve remained largely untouched but face ever-growing pressure from illegal logging, jade and gold mining and hunting. To the north west sits ‘Jade City’, a enormous jade mine that resembles a moonscape, horrifically damaging to the natural environment but making the Kachin and Chinese traders very wealthy indeed. As with the jade and gold, the teak trees of the far north are being cut to fund ever-growing Chinese development.

Preparing for the boat trip  

Preparing for the boat trip 

On the second day, I and a small group of travellers, four of us in total - there are only around 650 foreign visitors a year here - hired a boat and a birding guide to explore the rich avian diversity in and around the lake. It was cold and a thick mist hung over the water. The boat was noisy and pumped out petrol fumes but we still managed to record some 63 bird species throughout the day including some rarities.

The lake is known as a birding hotspot, containing over 160 species (excluding forest birds, estimated at around 100) and is a major migratory route from Siberia, Mongolia and China - a very precious and fragile ecosystem.

Village People

Mamon Kaing village in the south of the lake

Mamon Kaing village in the south of the lake

The cheerful ice-cream seller at Hepa village

The cheerful ice-cream seller at Hepa village

A pig watches on as a woman scales fish in Hepa village

A pig watches on as a woman scales fish in Hepa village

We stopped off at Hepa village for a coffee and a chat with some local villagers before skirting the east side of the lake for an hour or two. By this time the mist had cleared and it was warm and sunny. The lake resembled a millpond.

There are around 20 Kachin villages surrounding the lake itself with their main income from fishing it’s vast waters. There are an estimated 93 fish species (and counting) within the lake though they face ongoing issues with over-fishing, agricultural run-off and mining waste. The NGOs I talked to says that fish stocks are already dwindling through migratory fishing (as other lakes south lose their fish, the fishermen travel to Indawgyi) and sedimentation from the gold mines to the south east. A real concern.

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A Giant Comorant surveys the lake  

A Giant Comorant surveys the lake 

After a 30 minute walk through small lakeside farms and degraded forest, we stopped for a gorgeous lunch in the village of Tom Saw Kha before beginning a sweaty two hour hike up to the Shwe Taung Pagoda that rises above the lake to the north.

An elderly villager at Tom Saw Kha  

An elderly villager at Tom Saw Kha 

Environmental vandalism abounds within the Shwe Taung mountain forest  

Environmental vandalism abounds within the Shwe Taung mountain forest 

The Indawgyi River  

The Indawgyi River 

It was a great surprise that, despite the forest being so hugely degraded, there still exists a population of Eastern Hoolock Gibbons. These beautiful apes are arboreal and need the safety of high tree cover, never venturing on to the forest floor so it’s quite remarkable they exist at all. Another surprise was the abundance of Pied Hornbills, these magnificent birds flocking in a group of up to 20 birds. We saw barbets and parrotlets along with bee-eaters and tanagers too.

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Towards Sustainability

We headed southwards back to Lon Ton stopping at the Shwe Mitzi Pagoda at the centre of the lake. As the sun began to set, the full majesty of the sanctuary was revealed by light, colour and reflection.

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Whilst the lake is without doubt a fragile and highly vulnerable ecosystem, there are many community-based projects underway to protect and preserve it’s undoubted beauty. Involving the local villages in it’s future as key stakeholders coupled with international organisations like Fauna and Flora International (the UK based environmental NGO active in the area), waste and water management and forestry bodies, Indawgyi has a chance to shape it’s future and remain a remarkably beautiful sanctuary.

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