Ground Truthing Conservation

By Alan Rabinowitz

Illustration ©Ken Orvidas

“The time for great discoveries is passed,” said Louis Agassiz in 1867. “No student of nature goes out now expecting to find a new world.”1

Agassiz was wrong. Within the first ten years of his pronouncement, Nikolay Przhevalsky explored the Gobi Desert from end to end and Henry Morton Stanley traced the length of the Congo River. By the first half of the 20th century, Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole and William Beebe dove in a bathysphere to more than 900 meters. And in just the last decade, new bird species have been found in the Andes and the Philippines, the world’s tiniest frog was discovered in the rain forests of Cuba, a previously undescribed 90-kilogram ungulate was photographed in the Annamite Mountains between Laos and Vietnam, and the most primitive living deer species was discovered in the northern reaches of Myanmar.

There has been no shortage of significant accomplishments and discoveries in the annals of exploration occurring right up to the present day. And there is no question that our world still contains untrodden landscapes, unexplained mysteries, and undocumented life forms. Yet, we have relegated exploration and biological discovery to history books.

This is a mistake. Our modern conservation agenda emphasizes theory, strategies, and simulations. But without basic ground truthing, we are apt to miss the mark, the result of which would be the loss of life forms we might have never known existed.

Exploration can take many forms and does not always involve daring adventures in remote corners of the earth. Field biology is one of the most basic forms of exploration. And while it does not often result in great discoveries or front-page news, it is through such efforts, often underfunded and arduous, that we obtain the necessary data for understanding, protecting, and managing the earth’s wildlife and wild lands.

Empty Reserves
The importance of biological exploration was made clear to me while conducting research in a relatively little-known country called Myanmar, formerly Burma until renamed in 1989. In 1994, as the director of Asia Programs for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), I entered into an agreement with the Myanmar Forest Department to assess their current protected area system and survey the last areas of little-known, remote habitat in the country. This was a zoologist’s dream. At the time, less than 1 percent of the land was designated as protected in a country with an estimated 40 percent remaining forest cover, high historic levels of species diversity, and possibly some of the last great pockets of large mammal fauna in the region.

For almost four decades, the international conservation community largely ignored Myanmar apart from attempts to map remaining habitat and speculate on the diversity and numbers of species that might still exist there. In fact, the maps and models for the region predicted a landscape still filled with tigers, rhinos, and elephants. But my years in the field had made me wary of such predictions; I had become all too familiar with outwardly beautiful looking forest that was silent and empty once you walked beneath its canopy. Our true understanding of Myanmar’s wildlife was still mostly a blank slate.

Unfortunately, some of my suspicions were validated immediately when I conducted the first expeditions into the two largest existing protected areas in Myanmar. In 1994, I hiked across Tamanthi Wildlife Sanctuary — a remote, unmanned area of over 2,100 km2 in northwest Myanmar, believed, at the time, to have the last viable herd of Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) in mainland Indochina. Expensive, glossy reports by international conservation organizations had already incorporated Tamanthi into plans for saving Sumatran rhinos although no one had set foot on the ground there in recent years. Our surveys indicated that all the rhinos were gone. The last of them were reportedly wiped out during the country’s political upheavals in the 1980s. What we did find, however, were signs of tigers (Panthera tigris), Asiatic leopards (Panthera pardus), and Asian elephants (Elephas maximus), alongside Lisu hunters killing tigers and river otters with snares, and local villagers collecting forest products, such as rattan, in large quantities to float downriver to markets.

The next year, I conducted surveys that crisscrossed Ahlaungdaw Kathapaw National Park, 1,600 km2 of seemingly pristine forest habitat that was Myanmar’s largest and best-staffed national park. This was the country’s premier tiger site, I was told, based on historical data and on surveys by park staff and international consultants. In fact, a reputable international conservation nongovernmental organization (NGO) decided to fund the establishment of this park as the country’s only tiger reserve.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that the well intentioned park staff did not even know what a tiger track looked like and that the international consultants who had worked with them were themselves untrained and had never left the main road. Our own tracking and camera-trap surveys indicated that, in fact, there were no more tigers in the park — zero! What the staff and consultants were identifying as tiger signs were tracks from Asiatic and clouded leopards. Had proper surveys been conducted, valuable resources would not have been expended for years protecting a species that did not even exist there, while this same species was being lost from other places in the country where it still had a chance.

Although Tamanthi and Aluangdaw Kathapa were not exactly uncharted landscapes, they were relatively remote, biologically unexplored areas. These were not empty forests. They were filled with important wildlife species that were disappearing elsewhere. But the government needed accurate information to protect and manage these areas properly. Such information could only come from exploration on the ground, away from the beaten path, and by using proper field research techniques. It did not come from assumptions, historical records, local interviews, and wishful thinking.

New Discoveries
After journeying to some of the better-known, albeit little-visited protected areas, I turned my attention to the largest expanse of rugged, biologically unexplored habitat in Myanmar — that which occurred in the hinterlands of the Kachin State, the northernmost region of the country, bordered by Tibet and the Yunnan Province of China to the north and east and Arunachal Pradesh to the west. Along with an expedition team of a dozen Burmese scientists and more than a hundred porters, we hiked into a region called Hkakabo Razi — a remote Sino-Himalayan habitat where the eastern edge of the Himalayas smacked up against the older mountains of the China plateau. In the course of a month-long, 400-km one-way trek, we found pockets of little-known species that were disappearing or gone from much of their range: takin (Budorcas taxicolor), musk deer (Moschus sp.), red panda (Ailurus fulgens), and the rare red goral (Naemorhedus baileyi). By examining skins and other body parts from hunters, we also documented three new species for the country — stone marten (Martes foina), blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur), and black barking deer (Muntiacus crinifrons).

The most exciting discovery for me occurred early in the journey, as I moved through the transition zone between the lower Indo-Malayan forests and the higher subalpine habitats of the Sino-Himalayan realm. A hunter stepped from the forest carrying a diminutive deer over his shoulder that, on first glance, I mistook for a young common red barking deer. Had I not spent countless hours pouring over skins and skulls during a mammalogy course at the University of Tennessee, I might never have noticed the slightly different cranial features and anatomical anomalies that would eventually lead us to confirm the discovery of a species completely new to science, the leaf deer (Muntiacus putaoensis). DNA analysis would later confirm the discovery of this second smallest deer in the world, and it would further indicate that we had found a living fossil, a deer that not only retained morphological characteristics of its extinct ancestors but that was genetically the most primitive cervid, or true deer, in the world. This discovery was front-page news, but it was only one of the many pieces that made up the intricate picture of this region, a picture that had become clearer through our explorations. In the end, our data convinced the government to designate a nearly 4,000-km2 area as Hkakabo Razi National Park, the country’s newest, largest national park.

A year later, another exploration took us back to the Kachin state, into the Hukaung Valley, the largest uninhabited forest block remaining in the country and an area that was not even on the map of biologists at the time. Traveling deep into the region near the border with Assam on both foot and elephant-back, this far northern Indo-Malayan edge habitat proved to have the best tiger and Asian elephant populations known to still exist in Myanmar. As a result, 6,500 km2 was declared the Hukaung Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, the country’s largest protected area. Now, a new 3-year study, requested by the Myanmar Forest Department, is being carried out by WCS to determine the feasibility of declaring the entire valley, nearly 13,000 km2, as Hukaung Valley Tiger Reserve, a multiuse area with the sanctuary at its core.

In 1988, Myanmar was not even considered one of the global “forest hotspots” because the models for such designation were based only on what we already knew, ignoring the large gaps in our understanding of the natural world. Yet by the year 2002, largely because of exploratory surveys in remote areas of Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia, the Indo-Burma region became listed as one of the “hottest” biodiversity hotspots for conservation in the world. And with our data from Myanmar alone, the country’s protected area system was increased five-fold, four new large mammals were added to Myanmar’s species list, and the Forest Department began to revamp their entire protected area program.

Future Investments
Events similar to those I’ve described in Myanmar are taking place elsewhere throughout the world, but they are too few and too far between. Perhaps one reason lies in our zeal for technology at the expense of traditional inquiry.

Sadly, many academic institutions are making it more difficult to become a well trained conservation biologist. As new theoretical courses are being offered in subjects such as environmental science, population modeling, and conservation biology, the most important basic courses, such as mammalogy, ornithology, ichthyology, entomology, herpetology, and botany, are being dropped. In the job market, international conservation NGOs hire geographic information specialists, economists, and social scientists instead of ornithologists, mammalogists, and herpetologists.

Among funding agencies, taxonomic research is often viewed as irrelevant and exploratory surveys are deemed unnecessary. Yet new theoretical paradigms and predictive models, though often perceived as being cheaper, easier, and even more advanced, cannot tell us all we need to know about the world.

In a recently published book, The Ghost with Trembling Wings, author Scott Weidensaul, discussing science and the search for lost species, states:

“We’re unwilling to accept that there isn’t more to the world than what we can see….We paint the blank spots on maps with our deepest fears and secret longings, and today we still grasp at straws, unwilling to admit that we’ve wrung most of the mystery out of the world.”

Such statements are as wrong now as they were when Louis Agassiz made his pessimistic pronouncement of the state of the world 135 years ago. Any field biologist who has spent time wandering the edge of the civilized world knows that our earth is still a wondrous place. What we profess to know, or to be the sum of our knowledge, is only that which has been easiest or within our capability to discover.

The reality is that we have not yet run the gamut of discovery, nor are we finished finding clues even to the mystery of our own origins. We will cease to unlock the mysteries of the world only when we no longer believe there is anything left to find. It is imperative that in our increasingly technologically advanced culture, we continue to examine the world around us through fresh eyes and new perspectives. And if we hope to save some of this world’s natural diversity, then we must never forget that basic exploration is one of the most important tools underlying good science and good conservation. The true legacy we leave for future generations will be based on our actions not our words.

Literature Cited:

1. Agassiz, L. 1869. A Journey in Brazil. Ticknor and Fields, Boston.

Suggested Readings:

Amato, G. et al. 1999. A new species of muntjac, Muntiacus putaoensis, from northern Myanmar. Animal Conservation 2(1):1-7.

Pringle, L. 2002. Strange Animals, New to Science. Marshall Cavendish, New York.

Rabinowitz, A. et al. 1995. A survey to assess the status of the Sumatran rhinoceros and other large mammal species in Tamanthi Wildlife Sanctuary, Myanmar. Oryx 29(2):123-128.

Rabinowitz, A., G. Amato, and U.S.T. Khaing. 1998. Discovery of the black muntjac, Muntiacus crinifrons, in north Myanmar. Mammalia 62(1):105-108.

Rabinowitz, A. and U.S.T. Khaing. 1998. The status of selected mammal species in far northern Myanmar. Oryx 32(3):201-208.

Rabinowitz, A. 1999. Notes on the rare red goral (Naemorhedus baileyi) of north Myanmar. Mammalia 63(1):119-123.

Rabinowitz, A. et al. 1999. Description of the leaf deer, Muntiacus putaoensis, a new species of muntjac from northern Myanmar. Journal of Zoology 249:427-435.

Rao, M. et al. 2001. A status review of the protected-area system in Myanmar with recommendations for conservation planning. Conservation Biology 16(2):360-368.

Terres, J.K. ed. 1961. Discovery. Great Moments in the Lives of Outstanding Naturalists. J.P. Lippincott Co., Philadelphia.

Weidensaul, S. 2002. The Ghost with Trembling Wings. Science, Wishful Thinking, and the Search for Lost Species. North Point Press, New York.

About the Author:
Alan Rabinowitz is Director of Science and Exploration for the Wildlife Conservation Society. Educated at the University of Tennessee, with degrees in ecology and wildlife biology, and the author of four books and more than 50 popular articles and scientific papers, Rabinowitz has conducted surveys and led expeditions in diverse parts of the globe, making important scientific discoveries and often serving as the catalyst for creation of new wildlife preserves.

This article is adapted from Beyond the Last Village: A Journey of Discovery in Asia’s Forbidden Wilderness By Alan Rabinowitz.
Hardcover: US$20
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