In a remote part of Kachin State lies Indawgyi Lake, the biggest lake in Myanmar and one of the largest in Southeast Asia. Every year, from January to March, 20,000 migratory birds from as far away as Siberia take refuge here for feeding and nesting, making this a top destination for bird watching.
Designated as a wildlife sanctuary by the government in 1996, Indawgyi Lake houses more than birds. It’s also home to a variety of fish such as the seahorse-shaped Microphis dunkeri, so rare that they have been found only here.
But many fishermen dependent on the lake for their livelihood fear that migrants relocating from Inle Lake – the downgraded cousin of Indawgyi where fish stocks have been severely depleted – might have a negative impact on the Kachin lake.
“If stocks decline, income declines and families suffer,” says Zau Lunn, the marine coordinator for Myanmar-based Fauna and Flora International (FFI), adding that many fishermen could resort to crime if they cannot sustain their livelihoods.
The migrants tend to fish year-round, while the locals farm rice during the paddy season. Locals accuse migrant fishermen of coming to the lake at night with weapons and electric shockers. Other threats to Indawgyi include gold-mining operations that cause serious sedimentation and pollution in the southern part of the lake.
In December 2013, Zau Lunn, along with a fish taxonomist from Switzerland, surveyed fish in Indawygyi Lake, finding 80 species, 10 more than had been thought. Last year, there were 95 species, suggesting good prospects for further growth.
Zau Lunn says that based on the survey, they will establish more fish conservation zones, adding that his organisation would partner with Friends of Wildlife and local conservation organisations, which have been promoting sustainable fishing in Indawgyi Lake since 2008.
However, he realises that no matter how hard they enforce the zoning areas, some fishermen may enter the zone if there are no other options for survival.
Now, along with the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, FFI has launched a community-based tourism initiative to provide alternative income. There are also initiatives under way for Indawgyi Lake Wildlife Sanctuary to be designated as a Biosphere Reserve under UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere Program.
“Finding new species is very important for science. If we can continue to develop ecotourism, new livelihood opportunities will grow and fishing pressure will be reduced. Local communities will be proud of finding new species in their area and they will be more interested in conservation,” says Zau Lunn.
The biggest challenge, however, is how to bridge the gap between preserving the ecosystem and building better livelihoods.
“We continue to educate the local farmers in sustainable management,” says Zau Lunn.