May 14, 2001 Officials from Myanmar (formally Burma) recently declared a remote valley surrounding the old Ledo Road - a once vital supply route for the Allies in WWII - the nation's largest wildlife sanctuary, according to the Bronx Zoo-based Wildlife Conservation Society.
Known as the Hukaung Valley, the 2,500-square-mile protected area supports elephants, leopards, Himalayan black bears, gaur and other wildlife in numbers rarely seen elsewhere in present day Asia. It also contains the last stronghold of Indochinese tigers in the country, and a population of leaf deer, a species discovered by WCS researchers in 1997.
"The Hukaung Valley contains an assemblage of animals that have vanished throughout much of Asia's forests," said Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, Wildlife Conservation Society director for Science and Exploration, who conducted the wildlife survey that led to the refuge's creation.
Considered one of the greatest engineering feats of WWII, the Ledo Road (later renamed the Stillwell Road in honor of General Joseph Stillwell, who first proposed the idea) connected the state of Assam in India with the well-known Burma Road in northwest Myanmar. The road system provided communications and supplies for the Allies' struggle against the Japanese.
The Ledo Road took some 60,000 engineers and indigenous laborers two years to build, hacking through more than 300 miles of jungle, and negotiating steep defiles, gorges and raging rapids. The project was completed in 1944 at a cost of 150 million dollars, and an estimated human toll of "a man a mile."
The road has since fallen into disrepair, and the entire valley remains largely uninhabited due to disease and flooding during most of the year.
"What makes the Hukaung Valley inhospitable to people has created a refuge for wildlife," Dr. Rabinowitz added.
The reserve, officially created last month by Myanmar's government, is a major step forward in the Myanmar Forest Department's involvement with the Wildlife Conservation Society, which was the first conservation group invited back into the country after a long period of isolation. In fact, the Forest Department has recently asked WCS to survey a remote area beyond the Hukuang Valley, to see if it could potentially link to Hkakabo Razi National Park, the nation's second largest protected area, which WCS also helped create.
"When WCS first began working in this isolated country in 1993, only one percent of its land was officially protected as national parks or wildlife sanctuaries, despite a reported 40 percent forest cover. Now less than a decade later, nearly four percent of the country is safeguarded, much of it due to the efforts of WCS and the dedicated staff of the Myanmar Forest Department," Dr. Rabinowitz said.
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