During 50 years of repressive military rule, vast jungles in the country known as both Myanmar and Burma were unexplored by scientists. Frozen in time and unscathed by industrialism and tourism, these forests were rumored to serve as home to some of the world’s most endangered or vulnerable creatures, including Asian elephants, clouded leopards, tigers and sun bears.
After a parliamentary government took power in 2011, Smithsonian Institution researchers, native scientists and trackers and a BBC film crew were granted long-sought access to conduct a survey of the country’s lush, uncharted wilderness. Their two-month expedition—and surprising findings—are documented in Wild Burma, a three-part series debuting on the Smithsonian Channel in May.
“What we were aiming to do was to try to get the first filmmaking expedition in to areas of the country that had been off-limits to Westerners for a very long time,” says Kris Helgen, head of mammalogy at the National Museum of Natural History and a member of the expedition to Myanmar. “There were a lot of open questions about wildlife in these areas," he says, "What’s still there? What’s left?”
Helgen and his team of conservationists set out to explore isolated swaths of the country, where they planted camera traps to document rare species on film. With only three percent of the country's land safeguarded by law, the group's goal was to obtain tangible evidence that the jungles should be protected in order to ensure animal survival.
The first stop on the scientists’ itinerary was the Rakhine Yoma Mountains, an isolated area in Western Burma thought to host an extensive population of Asian elephants. Despite the rumors, however, no one from the Smithsonian had ever seen any in the wild. Chris Wemmer, the party’s elephant expert and a former director of the Smithsonian National Zoo's Conservation Biology Institute, had spent 25 years traveling to the Far East only to be eluded by the rare animal.
Over the past century, nearly 90 percent of the world’s Asian elephants have disappeared; they're often hunted by poachers, killed by farmers protecting their land or driven from their habitats. This statistic heightened the expedition’s urgency to find concrete proof that intact herds existed in remote Myanmar.
The search was rewarded after several days when a herd of elephants rushed by. This magestic site, along with subsequent observations of young calves, confirmed that the region was indeed a stronghold for wild elephants in Southeast Asia—perhaps the world's last great population of its kind.
Myanmar, says Wemmer, has “important homes and areas where the Asian elephant can be protected”—making it critical for the country’s leaders to implement regulations before it's too late.
Similar findings occurred in other areas of the country, too. Led by local guides, the Smithsonian scientists and their companions trekked into another remote mountain range, Salu, and filmed breeding sun bears and two types of rare cats. Later, they filmed tigers in both southern Myanmar and Htamanthi, a northern gateway to a stretch of unspoiled forest that is larger than Massachusetts. By the time their two-month trip had finished, says Helgen, they had documented 27 species considered endangered or vulnerable. This data was compiled into a report and delivered to the country's president. By the time Wild Burma airs, Helgen also hopes that their findings will become available to the program's viewers, as well.
For nearly half a century, the political landscape had an unintended, yet positive, effect on wildlife: it allowed obscure species to thrive, undisturbed, in the wild. But this won't be the case for long, warns Helgen. Logging and mining threatens to destroy healthy habitats, and a lucrative international wildlife trade encourages illegal hunting.
"The opening up of Myanmar, with some changes to democratization—it's very positive," says Helgen. "But it also means that this is an extremely critical time for Myanmar’s natural spaces and its wildlife. The time to ensure that these areas are truly being protected is right now."
"Otherwise," he adds, "it's not going to last."
Wild Burma, a three-part series debuts on the Smithsonian Channel at 8 p.m. Wednesday, May 7, and continues May 14 and 21