Climbing Up Hponkan Razi in Northern Myanmar

One of the many river crossings on the trip. (Photo: Hedley Grantham/WCS)

By Hedley Grantham
September 12, 2017

My colleague Rob Tizard said to me, “Basically, it goes like this…,” as he drew on a piece of paper. “First you go up, then across, then up again.” He failed to mention that the first day was up a very steep incline (and half way back down again), the second day was relatively flat but with some crossing over muddy leech-infested ridge lines, and the rest of the 10 days were literally straight up and down a steep ridge for around 50 kilometers — gaining 2 kilometers in altitude!

The trip in total was around 130 kilometers— from just over 500 meters in altitude to nearly 4 kilometers! We would be exploring the Hponkan Razi Wildlife Sanctuary in northern Myanmar. The team consisted of four WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) staff — Kyaw Zay Ya, Tin Myo Thu, Jeff Silverman and myself — and Bran Shaung from the Myanmar government’s Nature and Wildlife Conservation Division, along with several support crew.

This is one of several protected areas in the Indo-Myanmar-China tri-junction of the eastern Himalayas and contains some of the largest unbroken forests remaining in Asia.

Breaking for the day and having dinner, at one of the camp sites along the trail. (Photo: Hedley Grantham/WCS)

On the China side it includes the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Area, a World Heritage Site found in the upper watershed of three of the biggest rivers in the world: the Mekong, the Salween, and the Yangtzee. On the Indian side, the sanctuary includes the intact forests of Arunachal Pradesh and Namdapha National Park.

Hponkan Razi is also going through a World Heritage nomination process with the neighboring protected area, Hkakabo Razi (including a 3,000 square kilometer extension), to comprise in one landscape more than 1 million hectares of forest with a full range of ecosystems.

The area’s outstanding universal values include being an epicenter for evolutionary processes in the intersection of three tectonic plates. Starting on the roof of the world in the Tibetan plateau, the steep north-south mountain ridges form “sky islands” surrounded by the lowlands of tropical Asia. During past and ongoing periods of climatic change, the landscape has supported a unique matrix of habitats driving plant migration and speciation.

The area’s outstanding universal values include being an epicenter for evolutionary processes in the intersection of three tectonic plates. Starting on the roof of the world in the Tibetan plateau, the steep north-south mountain ridges form “sky islands” surrounded by the lowlands of tropical Asia.

The greatest undisturbed elevational gradient within one hundred kilometers (north-south) is combined with exceptionally high humidity, resulting in uniquely high biodiversity in this region. This high diversity arises further from both ecological stability (e.g. relatively less change in climate) in evolutionary time scales and medium disturbance such as the erosion processes triggered by rapid mountain uplift and high precipitation.

What struck us the most was the diversity of forest types we covered. This was the reason that we were there.

Rhododenron Forest with fir trees, looking down the valley. (Photo: Hedley Grantham/WCS)

The property includes a wide range of undisturbed habitats of unmatched integrity going from lowland tropical forests to snowcapped mountains, including: tropical evergreen rain forest (up to 600 m); subtropical hill forest (450–1,675 m); subtropical pine-oak forest (1,000–1,980 m); temperate monsoon forest (1,525–2,135 m); mixed temperate forest (2,135–2,745 m); silver fir forest (2,745–3,660 m); subalpine Rhododendron scrub (3,350–3,960 m); and alpine vegetation (3,660–4,575 m).

These habitats form an epicenter for evolution and speciation at the nexus of a globally exceptional multitude of biogeographical regions — two biogeographic provinces, three floristic regions, six ecoregions, and three biodiversity hotspots!!

Reaching the snow line. Stunted rhododendron and fir forest. (Photo: Hedley Grantham/WCS)

Hponkan Razi Wildlife Sanctuary contains abundant wildlife. We saw and heard numerous troops of eastern hoolock gibbons, many different bird species, and other wildlife. Camera trapping has showed that the area still contains healthy populations of clouded leopard, Asiatic black bear, dhole and red panda. High up, there are there are antelopes like takin, red goral, and blue sheep (and likely snow leopards preying on these blue sheep!).

We bumped into others exploring the forests too, including researchers from China doing botanical and other surveys and a gibbon survey led by WCS. We also bumped into numerous locals on their way into neighboring countries looking for medicinal plants.

The diversity of Myanmar’s ecosystems — more than 2,000 kilometers long, stretching from the Himalayas down to southern Thailand — blows the mind. Camera trapping has showed that the area still contains healthy populations of clouded leopard, Asiatic black bear, dhole, and red panda.

Once we were back we spoke to a team developing the tourism plan for the region. While this was a fairly tough hike, I know one day the sleepy little town of Putao, the base camp for this region, will grow exponentially (and compete with places like Nepal) as many tourists discover what a great destination this is.

Our objective was to scope some of the different forest types in the region and collect data on the dominant trees and forest structure. As part of a larger initiative in partnership with academics and other civil society groups, we hope to help the government map and assess all the ecosystems across the whole country.

At the top of the mountain. The weather cleared just enough to take a photo! From left to right: Hedley Grantham, Jeff Silverman, Bran Shaung, Tin Myo Thu, Kyaw Zay Ya. (Photo: Hedley Grantham)

The diversity of Myanmar’s ecosystems — more than 2,000 kilometers long, stretching from the Himalayas down to southern Thailand — blows the mind. As increasing investment in Myanmar occurs, and as it opens up for economic development, we hope that this work will help inform a more sustainable development pathway.

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Dr. Hedley Grantham is Director of Conservation Planning at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).

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